The Role of Fiction in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
The Role of Fiction in Mansfield Park
Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park closely examines a multitude of social and political issues, as well as scrutinizes nineteenth century middle to upper class marriages. One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is the importance of acting as a general theme in Mansfield Park. Considering that acting can be used as a method for depiction, and as a metaphor for false attempts to express and characterize oneself. However these attempts can be confirmed false because, ultimately, they deny oneself they seek to create. They also reject important realities of the physical world to which oneself must exist, swapping them for fiction and other material values. This deceit can be most exemplified by Mary and Henry Crawford who spend time at Mansfield Park to seek potential marriage partners. The ideal being of this form of art as true to life is the main character Fanny Price. Her delicacy and wit are qualities that are opposed throughout Mansfield Park to the fictions and role-play to which the Crawfords, and others, aspire to create their own reality.
During the time of the rehearsals for “Lovers’ Vows”, Fanny makes a statement that reveals her intrapersonal character. Tom Bertram had asked her to act as Cottager’s Wife. She responds with: “Indeed you must excuse me. I could not act anything if you were to give me the world. No, indeed, I cannot act” (p. 145). She then tries to justify herself by insisting: “It is not that I am afraid of learning by heart but I really cannot act” (pp. 145-46). This would already seem to be a vital comment by Fanny upon herself, for it is emphasized from the beginning that Fanny, unlike almost all those by whom she finds herself ignored or treated as an inferior at Mansfield for her family’s poverty, is incapable either of creating fiction or of performing in them. Furthermore, the performing arts, acting and music, are opposed negatively, in Mansfield Park, to nature and to rational conversation. At one point Fanny is left alone with Edmund at the drawing-room window, and turns to the scene outside and observes the brilliant unclouded night and the contrasting color of the woods. “Here’s harmony!” she exclaims, “Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe ” (p. 113). Here nature serves as the truest form of art and everything else is imitation. Whereas Edmund himself appreciates the art of nature moves towards the fortepiano, seemingly to avoid nature and sensible conversation to engage in performance and applause. By doing so, he reveals the type of person he chooses to follow which he has already pursued admiringly with his eyes was the attraction of deception in appearance; whether the appearance in question be an attractively composed woman or musical pleasure. Fanny observes claiming that “She [Mary Crawford] tripped off to the instrument, leaving Edmund looking after her in an ecstasy of admiration of all her many virtues, from her obliging manners down to her light and graceful tread” (p. 112). The notion that Fanny “cannot act” is seen as the language of her contact with nature both human and phenomenal. When she first arrives at Mansfield it is noted explicitly that her feelings were “very acute.” As a result of the education she received as a child relying on Edmund that these “feelings” are advanced in the direction of the comprehension of herself and others so that they become “sympathetically” acute. It is this very “sympathetic acuteness of feeling,” or gentleness that is missing from Fanny’s treatment by the Mansfield residents, which all of whom Fanny is belittled and viewed less as a person than as one who must fulfil a designated role.
To Mrs. Norris, Fanny Price is just a poor relation who is to be used. For Sir Thomas it is rather Fanny’s household and social roles that matter. To Maria and Julia Bertram, Fanny is to be judged by her material possessions as well as her lack of accomplishments, while to Lady Bertram Fanny has solely one role as that of a helper. All these perspectives demonstrate the absence of sympathy that arises from feeling. Fanny’s emotional reality is rejected by people who themselves perpetually cast others, as they would cast themselves in their roles. Casting roles is presented as the most opposite, and as the obstacle of that “sympathetic acuteness of feeling” to which Fanny, as the result of Edmund’s tend to her education, has become the epitome of. The term used most often in Mansfield Park to describe this quality is “delicacy,” and in terms of their lack of delicacy the human deficiency of other characters is most often expressed. Mr. Yates is “without discernment or diffidence, or delicacy, or discretion enough” to understand that Sir Thomas preferred to leave the topic of theatricals alone. Henry Crawford’s distasteful determination with Fanny’s affections is regarded by her as “a want of delicacy and regard for others.” Fanny considers that Sir Thomas, “who had married a daughter to Mr Rushworth,” can have no “romantic delicacy” which may allow him to see beyond purely real information, into her real feelings concerning Crawford. “Delicacy,” then, would seem to imply sympathetic perception of the kind demonstrated by Edmund when he discovers Fanny as a child crying on the stairs, and the kind displayed by Fanny in her consistent concern with the structure of the thoughts and feelings of others as well as of herself. It is defined as a measure of Edmund’s straying from purity during his pursuit of Mary Crawford that he allows his captivation in favor of her brother Henry to overlook the delicacy of his perceptions. Having assured Fanny “you did not love him-nothing could have justified your accepting him,” he then urges her, “let him succeed at last, Fanny, let him succeed at last. You have proved yourself upright and disinterested, prove yourself grateful and tender- hearted; and then you will be the perfect model of a woman, which I have always believed you born for.” Here Edmund is asking Fanny to adapt to her emotional responses to Henry Crawford just much as she is in the tendency to comply with orders in the service of the residents of Mansfield Park. However, Fanny in the routine of her life as a servant, is being emotionally true to herself. Unlike Edmund’s lack of delicacy, she cannot undertake emotional roles, because by doing so would mean she would not be true to the grounds of feeling within her. She “cannot act.”
What Fanny exhibits, in direct opposition to the Crawfords, and to the other role-players and role-imposers, is a state of being grounded in feeling, not in role-play, but in actual, not unimagined experience. This state of being requires a cordial relationship between the self and others. In this manner she is habitually engaged in the effort to view both herself and others as they really are in terms of reason, feeling, and moral intention, not as she would have them be.
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The Role of Fiction in Mansfield Park Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park closely examines a multitude of social and political issues, as well as scrutinizes nineteenth century middle to upper […]