What Is the Nature of Irony in Mansfield Park, and To What Ends Does It Work Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 1st, 2019


Mansfield Park, written by Jane Austen, is a complicated masterpiece but thrilling at the same time. Typically, Austen’s work is usually complicated for she creates unusual characters and scenes. However, the complexity in Mansfield Park surpasses any other work by Jane Austen. Mansfield Park is a story about a young woman, Fanny; lost in the social web that she cannot identify with a specific place in society.

Though born in a piteous family, Fanny enjoys vibrant upbringing from her wealthy aunt. In the nineteenth century, women gained status in the society by the person they get married to as opposed to nowadays where a woman can enter any profession and claim her status in the society. Therefore, Fanny has to marry to claim her status in the society.

Nevertheless, as opposed to many marriages in society where women get married based on family connections and prominence coupled with beauty, Fanny is out to earn her groom depending on her character and demeanour. It is unfortunate in Fanny’s world that, everything comes by merit through rewarding virtue where an individual solely determines his or her future based on what he or she does.

This story takes the reader to a complicated journey where one wonders what the primary determinants in one’s life are. Between nature and nurture, what really determines one’s character? Even though Jane Austen addresses many issues like the role of education in life and sexuality among others, this paper looks into the nature of irony in Mansfield Park and determines to what extend it works.

Irony and Its Nature

According to Essid (2008), Irony is “perception of inconsistency, usually but not always humorous, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very different significance.” There are three different types of irony.

They include, verbal irony, which is variance between the intended meaning and the actual spoken words. Structural irony “involves the use of a naive or deluded hero or unreliable narrator whose view of the world differs widely from the true circumstances recognized by the author and readers” (Essid 2008).

Dramatic irony comes out in drama when the audience foreknows what will happen to the characters, even though the characters do not know. Austen employs structural irony and this applies until the end of the book because Fanny does not come to realize her place in society neither does she appreciate the reality.

Going back one of Austen’s books, Pride and Prejudice; she opens it by saying, “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1983, p. 1). This statement introduces Austen’s use of irony in her writing. Ironically, Austen is saying, “a single woman must be in want of a man with a good fortune” (Van Ghent 1998, p. 305).

This serves only as an introduction to Austen’s world of irony. Maybe looking to some of the comments from seasoned writers have made about irony in Mansfield Park, it would help the reader to understand it better. A seasoned author Marvin Mudrick (1968, p. 155) posits that, “Nowhere else does Jane Austen take such pains to make up the mind of her reader.”

To echo these words, Lionel Trilling (1955, p. 208) concludes that, this is a novel, “in which the characteristic irony seems not to be at work. Indeed, one might say of this novel that it undertakes to discredit irony and to affirm literalness, that it demonstrates that there are no two ways about anything.”

Perhaps Fanny is not the person Austen tries to picture in this story; she is a didactic woman who steers her life though clandestinely. Richard Colby; after immense efforts in studying heroines like Fanny in other didactic works like Brunton and Opie, he notes that, “certainly the characters of Mansfield Park would not feel out of place in the atmosphere of Coelebs in Search of a Wife” (Colby 1967, p. 83).

The attitude of Austen in this book is different from other writings. “Miss Austen’s way with the Christian-didactic novel; is not to be compared with her flippant treatment of Gothicism and sentimentality, for her attitude toward her immediate contemporaries is fundamentally different. The novelist of Mansfield Park, therefore; is no longer the mocker, but the improver” (Colby 1967, p. 94)

It is ironical that Austen wants to paint Fanny as a Christian heroine on one side, yet on the other side, Fanny comes out as a non-religious figure who cares for no one else but herself. As opposed to the Christian principles that Austen endows Fanny with, she comes out as a flawed and vulnerable woman without morals.

Most of Fanny’s characters are irritating to the reader, no wonder Trilling (1955, p. 212) notes that, “no reader has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is overtly virtuous and consciously virtuous.” Fanny’s character is so exaggerated to be true; no one can attain such self-righteousness, not Fanny, either. Fanny is flawed in her beliefs and this probably poses the greatest obstacles towards her identification of her position in the society.

Even though Fanny is out to gain ‘self-knowledge’, Austen repeatedly uses the word ‘must’ and this interferes with the logical thinking towards self-knowledge and realization. This enforcement leads the reader to, “read it in its opposite” (Van Ghent 1998, p. 305). Surely, the reader is forced to read both what Austen is saying and what she is not saying.

For instance, looking closely to Fanny’s resolution to draw the line between the reality (the truth based on facts) and fantasies (her wishes), instead of seeing the self-knowledge that Austen purports, the reader concludes this is self-deception.

Mary Crawford is hit by Fanny’s confusion between self-knowledge and self-deception and she seeks to know whether Fanny engages in social world, whether she knows her place in this world or she just observe as events fold and unfold. To this question, Edmund Bertram concludes that, “Miss Price is not out” (Austen 1988, p. 51).

The fact that Fanny is not fully involved in the social world out there is ironical given that she is supposed to be a heroine according to Austen’s insinuations. Heroines should be brave, role models, discerning and standing for a good course. If someone is just like any body else then he or she does not qualify to be a hero or heroine. The outstanding things that people do sets them apart and this calls for making tough decisions, judgments and choices that in most cases does not go down well with the greater populace.

Regrettably, these qualities are conspicuously lacking in Fanny’s character. For instance, when discussing about a clergy job that Dr. Grant took, Edmund looks things from a pragmatic point of view and states that, Dr. Grant has a “very faulty habit of self-indulgence’” (Austen 1988, p.111).

However, Fanny deliberately refuses to see this fact and chooses to defend this clergyman by saying, “It must make him think, and I have no doubt that he oftener endeavours to restrain himself than he would if he had been any thing but a clergyman” (Austen 1988, p. 112).

The fact is Fanny is simply gullible. While on one side, the reader acknowledges Fanny’s moral optimism, it is irritating to see the deliberate refusal to accept the reality. The people heading churches are simply human; susceptible to human flaws like self-indulgence, a fact that Fanny cannot see.

Either Fanny’s gullibility, escapism or self-deception, comes out clearly when she says to Edmund, “Here’s harmony! Here is repose! Here is what may tranquillize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!

When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the grandeur of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene” (Austen 1988, p. 113). While one appreciates the sanctimony of Fanny’s observations, they only come as a fantasy.

These scenes of harmony and placidity occur only in Fanny’s mind; possibly, because she spends most of her time escaping from the reality. She admits her feelings, “I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the grandeur of Nature were more attended to…” (Austen 1988, p. 113).

This is ridiculous and the closest that these feelings come to realization is only that, feelings. This is self-deception; Edmund realizes it, and even though he assures Fanny that he is going to keep her company by the window, he ironically goes back to the room because he loves Crawford. Again, it is ironical that Edmund claims to support Fanny’s purviews of sanctimony yet draws back to meet Crawford.

Despite the many attempts that Austen tries to bring out the heroine in Fanny, she remains an observer of the world; something that Butler brands, “an active heroine” (Butler 1987, p. 236). According to Mudrick (1968, p. 240), “Fanny’s silences are the appropriate social demeanour of the Christian heroine, who is humble and unassertive.

But in her half of the book, the second half, they also imply the strength of someone who neither needs to seek advice nor to vindicate herself, because she has a source of strength both within and without.” It is visible that Fanny does not have any clue about human nature; not even herself.

While on one side the reader sees Fanny as a flaw-bound person who tries hard to learn, Austen throws all this into disarray and one cannot fully understand the character of Fanny. This is one of the books by Austen that one is likely to get lost in it. It appears that Fanny will appreciate friendships only from a certain point and nothing beyond that. For instance, what explains this scene; Mary is Fanny’s friend for along time and she has been showering Fanny with gifts all the time.

However, one day Mary tries to give Fanny a necklace, supposedly given by Henry and Fanny cannot believe it. “Fanny, in great astonishment and confusion, would have returned the present instantly. To take what had been the gift of another person, of a brother! Too, impossible; it must not be!” (Austen 1988, p. 259. However, after Mary persuades her and Edmunds steps in to commend how beautiful she looks in the necklace, she accepts it.

Immediately after accepting the necklace, Edmund suggests that a chain worn as a cross would even make it better. Fanny immediately accepts the chain and notes that, “they must and shall be worn together’” (Austen 1988, 262). As aforementioned at the beginning of this paper, the repetitive use of “must” forces the reader to read what Austen is not saying.

Austen uses this irony and the reader can easily read what she is not saying. The thing is Fanny has a wears the chain and the necklace to hide something. Not that the chain is of any importance to Fanny no; she uses it to cover her romantic feelings and this is self-deception.

No wonder; after wearing the two of them, she becomes “comfortably satisfied” Austen 1988, p.271. What ‘comfort’? Fanny is only ‘comfortable’ that she has managed to fool herself together with the people surrounding her. She cannot face the reality that she has romantic feelings just like anybody else. Even though to some extent Fanny can control her values and maintain her self-righteousness, it does not hold any water as she continually lives in denial.

Fanny continually seeks to build and shape her life around distorted principles that are too weak to stand on themselves. Not only does she believe that she can build and shape her life, but also, believes that she can shape other people’s lives by her ideologies.

This leads to numerous misunderstanding in different occasions. For instance, she cannot understand Henry as a human being; she thinks, “He must be ashamed and disgusted altogether. He must soon give her up, and cease to have the smallest inclination for the match” (Austen 1988, 402).

This is what she hopes, however, the fact is she knows Henry changed his ways and this fact flatters her. This case resonates to the case of Crawford who had changed and become gentle with people and regarding them with respect. She wonders, “If in little things, must it not be so in great?” (Austen 1988, p. 413). What Fanny is saying is that, it is ‘must’ for Henry to have changed and this is only to her benefit. She sees what she wants to see, not the reality as she continues to build and paint her own world.

Nevertheless, Fanny’s fantasies are yet to face the test of reality. After realizing that Henry had eloped with Maria, she thinks that, “as far as this world alone was concerned, the greatest blessing to every one of kindred with Maria would be instant annihilation (Austen 1988, p. 442). Ironically, this is against her sanctimonious beliefs that call for forgiveness and bearing with one another in times of troubles and challenges.

It is ironical that, while Fanny disapproves Maria’s act to a point of calling for annihilation, she would do the same if she were in Maria’s shoes. Fanny accepts that she has feelings for Henry but she cannot imagine her self having feelings similar to those of a wicked person like Maria. The question is; would Fanny accept to be annihilated for she shared same feelings with Maria. The answer is no, because we are all human beings full of flaws; a fact that Fanny deliberately chooses to ignore.

Though Fanny does not get a chance to annihilate Maria, Austen annihilates the story. As she concludes the story, the wicked people get their share of suffering as the good are awarded on merit according to their deeds. Fanny says, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (Austen 1988, p. 461). Like any other story, Austen brings a happy conclusion where lovers lived happily thereafter.

According to Trailing (1955, p. 230), “It shuts out the world and the judgment of the world. The sanctions upon which it relies are not those of culture, of quality of being, or personality, but precisely those, which the new conception of the moral life minimizes, the sanctions of principle, and it discovers in principle the path to the wholeness of the self, which is peace.

When we have exhausted our anger at the offence which Mansfield Park offers to our conscious pieties, we find it possible to perceive how intimately it speaks to our secret inexpressible hopes.”

Austen uses irony in this text to speak about people, how they usually have inexpressible desires and hopes. She concludes by saying, “My Fanny indeed at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of every thing. She must have been a happy creature in spite of all that she felt or thought she felt, for the distress of those around her” (Austen 1988, p. 461).


Mansfield Park, just like any other Austen’s book, is about a heroine who seems not to know exactly what she wants in life and her place in the larger society. However, even though Austen tries to paint a picture of a Christian heroine, Fanny does not own up to it according to her living standards. The standards that Austen sets for Fanny are too lofty for Fanny to achieve. Therefore, to cover these flaws, Austen uses a lot of irony whereby Fanny confesses she has to do what she does because it is a ‘must’ to do it; again, it is ‘comfortable’ to do it.

This represents escapism where one tries to create his or her self-beliefs through what is perceived to be self-knowledge only to turn out to be self-deception; deception it was when Fanny realized that she had same feeling as Maria, but wait, a self-righteous sanctimonious being cannot have feelings like a wicked being. What Fanny tries to assume for so long comes back to her. She calls for Maria’s annihilation; however, the question is whether she would accept the same.

Mansfield Park applies structural irony because Fanny does not come to terms with the reality and even though the reader knows the reality of the heroine, Fanny remains in delusions.

Reference List

Austen, J. 1988, Mansfield Park Ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford: OUP.

Austen, J. 1813, Pride and Prejudice, New York, Random House, Inc.

Butler, M. 1987, Jane Austen, and the War of Ideas, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Colby, R. 1967, Fiction with A Purpose: Major and Minor Nineteenth-Century Novels, Bloomington: Indiana Up.

Essid, J. 2008, Literature, Technology, and Society: Invented Worlds. Web.

Mudrick, M. 1968, Jane Austen: Irony as Defence and Discovery, Berkeley: U California.

Trilling, L. 1955, the Opposing Self, New York: Viking Press.

Van Ghent, D. 1998, the English Novel, Form, and Function, New York: Norton.

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