Discussion Post: Mansfield Park

November 19, 2009 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

Welcome to the first discussion post of the LT Classics Challenge! Here are my answers to the questions I posted on Monday, and I invite you all to comment with your own responses. Remember, readers who comment on at least one discussion post will be entered in a drawing for a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic!

Next week, we discuss Beowulf, but for now, let’s turn back to Mansfield Park

Dame Margaret Drabble, critic, actress and novelist, has said that Mansfield Park is “full of the energies of discord — sibling rivalry, greed, ambition, illicit sexual passion, and vanity.” Do you believe the energies of discord form the main core of this novel? If not, what does?

This novel is definitely centered on discord, more so even than Pride and Prejudice (which mainly contends with social class with some vanity and unfair judgment thrown in). Apart from Fanny and Edmund, everyone in this novel seems bound and determined to be as disagreeable as possible, indulging their selfishness, throwing off social conventions, injuring their families, and eloping seemingly at random. Absolutely everyone seems to have an agenda that has little to do with anyone else, and even Edmund gets sucked into the discord at certain points in the novel.

Jane Austen has a talent for turning everyday events into significant plot points riddled with symbolism. In Mansfield Park, the incident with Fanny and the chain for her cross necklace is one of those events. How does Jane Austen use this to illustrate Fanny’s mindset and potential futures? Is it effective, in your view?

The scene with the cross and the chain illustrates Fanny’s main dilemma — to marry Henry or not marry Henry? — before the issue is even raised. The simple cross, having been given to her by her brother, can represent Fanny’s self or her values, but also could be seen as an example of the rational friendship and admiration Fanny holds for her brother which should be transferred to a future husband.

The chain Mary gives Fanny from her brother is too large to thread through the pendant, demonstrating Henry’s tendency to vanity and the incompatibility of Fanny’s values with his selfishness. At any rate, Fanny cannot admire Henry as she has admired her brother and must admire a husband. Edmund’s gift, a perfect match for the cross in style, demonstrates how perfect a match he would be for Fanny — but Fanny must wear both chains to the ball, signalling that she might have to be content to marry Henry while secretly preferring Edmund.

More than Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park focuses on propriety, etiquette, and societal expectations. Think of the debate about whether Fanny is “out” or not, her role in the family due to her lower economic status, and the to-dos made over the theatrical production, Fanny’s dining out at the Grants’, and other scenes that focus on conventions of the period. Do these scenes make Mansfield Park less accessible to a modern audience? Does it matter?

I take issue with my own premise here, and I don’t necessarily think that Mansfield Park has more of a focus on propriety. I was mainly thinking of the issue with the theater, and wondering whether casual readers would realize how vulgar acting was seen to be, especially the acting of a play like Lover’s Vows.

But maybe I was underestimating the so-called “casual reader”: if Pride and Prejudice has been so popular, and a good part of it relies on the understanding that Elizabeth is poor, her sisters are crass, and Darcy throws both things in her face, then there’s no reason the issue with the theater in Mansfield Park cannot be overlooked.

The main problems regarding social expectations and roles are made much clearer later in the book, and by the time Maria elopes with Henry and Mary displays her true feelings regarding extramarital affairs and her actual joy at Edmund’s brother’s impending death, the reader fully understands the issues at hand.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to start reading Beowulf…

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Entry filed under: LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , .

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