Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 32–34 (Volume 3, Chapters 1–3) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 32

Fanny wakes the next day sure Henry will not trouble her again; however, he arrives early to discuss his proposal with Sir Thomas, forcing her to hide, trembling, in the East room. Just as she begins to calm down, she hears her uncle's heavy steps coming toward the door. He is disturbed to learn that Mrs. Norris has denied Fanny heat in the East room all these years and having settled that issue in Fanny's favor, he relays Henry's honorable proposal to her, expecting gratitude and joy. But when Sir Thomas asks Fanny to speak to Henry, she finally reveals her agitation. Having already rejected his proposal, she cannot face him again. Sir Thomas, stunned, casts about for an explanation; he thinks Fanny has encouraged Henry's hopes. Fanny assures her uncle that she cannot accept Henry's proposal, and he responds with a lecture listing the ways Fanny is ungrateful, unreasonable, and disobedient. Fanny cannot reveal the reason for her qualms without also revealing how inappropriately Maria behaved while Sir Thomas was abroad, so she has no defense as he accuses her of disrespect toward him, throwing away advantages to her siblings, and indulging in a "wild fit of folly." She weeps as his words depict her as self-centered and stubborn until Sir Thomas, moved by her tears, ceases his lecture and returns to Henry.

"The past, present, future, every thing" seem terrible to Fanny, but especially troubling is Sir Thomas's assumption of her ingratitude. Soon, Sir Thomas returns to report Henry has agreed, in a gentlemanly fashion, to leave for the evening but will return to speak to Fanny the next day. Sir Thomas advises Fanny to consider the proposal and, mercifully, agrees not to tell Mrs. Norris or Lady Bertram about it for now. He sends her out to walk in the fresh air; when she returns, she sees a fire in the East room fireplace and says, "Heaven defend me from being ungrateful!" At dinner not only does Sir Thomas say nothing to pain Fanny, he defends her against Mrs. Norris's accusations of idleness. By evening, Fanny is more composed and hopeful, but a summons to her uncle's room throws her back into confusion.

Chapter 33

Although Fanny hopes her forced meeting with Henry will be brief, his vanity and infatuation impel him to press his case. Henry does not know, the narrator reminds readers, he is attacking "a pre-engaged heart." He assumes modesty motivates Fanny's hesitation and relishes the challenge and novelty of compelling her to love him. Fanny states clearly but calmly her belief that they are "unfitted for each other by nature, education, and habit," but because gratitude for William's promotion clouds Fanny's refusal, Henry does not take her seriously. By the end of their interview, Henry's persistence arouses Fanny's anger.

The next day, Henry, on his best behavior, reports his version of the interview to Sir Thomas, who is pleased and allows Henry to continue to visit, though Sir Thomas himself will not distress Fanny further by trying to persuade her. He informs Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris about the proposal but asks them not to harass Fanny about it. Mrs. Norris, surprisingly, abides by his request despite irritably thinking Henry should have proposed to Julia. Lady Bertram is happy because Fanny has joined her in the club of pretty women who marry above their status. She even offers Fanny a puppy from her pug's next litter—a mark of affection she did not extend to Maria.

Chapter 34

When Edmund, now ordained, rides into Mansfield Park, he is surprised to see the Crawfords walking along. He hoped, by extending his stay with the Owens, to arrive home after Mary's departure for London. He also is surprised by her friendliness, but not until after dinner does he learn from Sir Thomas the cause: Henry's proposal has caused Mary to think better of Edmund despite his career choice. Meanwhile, Fanny waits anxiously to hear Edmund's opinion of the proposal. When it comes, it disappoints her—Edmund is "entirely on his father's side" on the matter, supposedly because of the benefit to Fanny but at least equally because of the advantage the marriage would give him with Mary. But at dinner the next evening, Edmund cannot deny how consistently Fanny discourages Henry's persuasion.

After dinner, Henry entertains the family by reading from Shakespeare's plays so well, even Fanny cannot ignore him. He and Edmund converse in lively tones about Shakespeare's appeal, the importance of reading well, and the challenges of writing sermons. Fanny listens eagerly but does not respond until Henry says he lacks the "constancy" to be a preacher. Then a reflexive shake of her head attracts his attention. As she pleads with Henry to leave her alone, Henry peppers her with questions until she admits she doubts his constancy. She hopes her disapproval will make him stop, but instead, he speaks at length about how he will prove his constancy by pressing his case until he prevails. Fanny feels besieged until a servant brings in tea, interrupting Henry's harangue. Edmund, watching from across the room, sees Fanny's flushed face and assumes Henry is making progress in his suit.

Analysis

Much of Volume 3 of Mansfield Park reveals the problems that ensue when parents and surrogates, even when well intentioned, fail the young people for whom they are responsible. As soon as Henry proposes, Fanny comes under pressure from adults who cannot fathom why she would not want to marry a lively, wealthy man so devoted to her happiness. Mrs. Norris, to everyone's surprise, has little to say about the proposal but watches Fanny with "increased ill-will" and deep anger—both because she thinks little of Fanny and because Henry's proposal is "an injury and an affront" to Julia. Mrs. Norris, the person who brought Fanny to Mansfield Park when she was a little girl, has never accepted her niece as family and refuses now to play the role of surrogate mother. Lady Bertram, of course, is unsuited to the role as well but at least is happy for Fanny and, for the first time ever, attempts to advise her: "every young woman's duty," she says, is "to accept such a very unexceptionable offer." She even throws in a pug puppy to sweeten the deal.

But, of course it falls to Sir Thomas to act as Fanny's surrogate father, the most important adult role in her life, because he can grant permission for the marriage. Readers know timid Fanny both loves and fears her large, loud, gruff uncle, whose first action upon entering the East room is to declare that Fanny must have a fire in her room, regardless of Mrs. Norris's prohibition. He is a kind, generous man; but he does not really know Fanny (or his daughters, for that matter).

The lecture he delivers with "calm displeasure," once he knows Fanny has refused Henry, bears close reading because it lays out expectations for daughters in Jane Austen's day. There is simply no reason, Sir Thomas says, to refuse Henry. First, Henry has "every thing to recommend him" in addition to his wealth and rank. Also, Henry is not a stranger but a family friend who has already benefited William. His attentions cannot be a surprise, because he has openly admired Fanny for some time. Then Sir Thomas becomes stern. He has thought Fanny free of "willfulness of temper, self-conceit," and disobedient self-determination so "offensive and disgusting" in young women. He has thought she would be guided by adults who care about her, grateful for her upbringing, and aware of the benefits to the family of this marriage. All the things a woman should not be—selfish, petty, ungrateful—Fanny clearly is. Sir Thomas cannot know, and Fanny cannot tell him without betraying Maria, why she objects to Henry, so it is hard to blame him entirely for his reaction. However, Fanny cries so bitterly, blushes so deeply, and has such trouble speaking, he might suspect something wrong. Fanny grieves that a man "so discerning, so honorable, so good" will not give her the benefit of a doubt but instead accuses her of hateful behavior "beyond all common offence."

But equally torturous to Fanny is Henry's persistence, rooted in his inflated sense of self-importance. Henry simply cannot imagine why Fanny would reject him; his vanity will not permit the claim. It is only a matter of "forcing her to love him," a novel challenge he relishes because when he wins her he will have "the glory, as well as the felicity." This courtship is "new and animating" to Henry, but torments Fanny whose naturally sweet expression encourages Henry, even when she says no.

Fanny has proved a difficult heroine for many readers because the novel was first published as three volumes, and these chapters suggest why readers are not as unanimously fond of her as they are of Elizabeth Bennet, for example, or Emma Woodhouse. Fanny seems to lack spunk and energy. Yet in these chapters, Fanny proves her loyalty—undeserved, largely—to her cousins. All she has to do is describe Henry's outrageous behavior at Sotherton and during the theatricals, and she could be free of Henry forever. Sir Thomas would see to that. At great cost to herself, Fanny protects Julia and Maria. In addition, the more readers watch Henry's pushy behavior, the easier it is to believe she is right. He has not reformed. His perseverance is "selfish and ungenerous," and he lacks "delicacy and regard." He presumes to use her first name, even when she recoils at the sound of it on his lips. She is Fanny to him now, the one "I think of all day, and dream of all night." Fanny can hardly keep from leaping up and running away from this assault in words. Henry does not think he has to take no for an answer, but instead of winning Fanny's affections, he stokes her fierce anger. Then, in a domestic touch common to Jane Austen's writings, Fanny finds relief in daily routine. With the serving of tea, she "was at liberty, she was busy, she was protected."

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