Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What does Edmund Bertram's defense of clergymen in Chapters 9 and 11 of Mansfield Park reveal about his character?

In his conversations with Mary Crawford, who objects to clergymen as idle and vain, Edmund Bertram makes these points: The church is a worthy choice of career for younger sons of wealth. Mary argues men want distinction and honor, which the church does not offer, but Edmund counters by saying some men prefer to serve. The church provides an honest living, as respectable as that in the law or military service. When Mary accuses Edmund of choosing the church simply because he knows his father will provide him with a parish and congregation, Edmund says of course he considered how he would live, but a guaranteed salary frees him to serve his congregants. The church provides moral leadership, with the clergyman as the compassionate model to his parish. Mary, accustomed to London preachers who strive for celebrity, does not grasp Edmund's vision of working diligently among his parishioners, getting to know them and supporting them through life's joys and hardships. "As the clergy are, or are not what they are meant to be," Edmund explains, "so are the rest of the nation." He means to be a good shepherd, and readers have already seen him in that role, as Fanny Price's friend and model since she arrived at Mansfield Park as a child. His defense of the clergy also reveals his thoughtful, analytical approach to difficult questions.

How is Tom Bertram characterized when he first appears in Chapter 12 of Mansfield Park?

Readers have heard more about Tom Bertram than from him thus far in the novel. He has been away in London, then abroad with his father in Antigua, then home and back to London. Tom seems to find Mansfield Park a confining and lackluster home, yet he is being trained to manage the estate one day. In Chapter 12, Tom has mostly skipped the little dance the young people are enjoying, perhaps of little consequence compared to balls in London. He comes in late, talking of horses and grooms, a more interesting topic to him than gossip about the dancers, and even grabs a newspaper to avoid dancing. Tom knows his correct role in the moment: Fanny Price lacks a partner, so he should offer to dance. He acknowledges his role half-heartedly but seizes on Fanny's modest self-denial to sit and gossip mean-spiritedly about the Grants' marriage. However, when Mrs. Norris demands that Tom play cards, because he is not dancing, he pretends only Fanny's "dawdling" keeps him from dancing and pulls her to the dance floor, complaining about his busybody aunt. "If I had not luckily thought of standing up with you," he'd have been stuck at the card table. This brief interchange reveals Tom as deeply selfish. He gives more attention to a sick horse than to his family, he speaks badly of people behind their backs, he lies easily when it benefits him to do so, and he uses people to get what he wants.

What is the significance of the conflict between Tom Bertram and Edmund Bertram in Chapter 13 of Mansfield Park?

While Sir Thomas and Tom Bertram were in Antigua, Edmund Bertram has proved himself, despite his youth, capable of managing Mansfield Park so well that Lady Bertram hardly misses her husband's presence. But when Tom comes home, Edmund must step aside and let the estate's heir run things. Edmund, an educated young man with a strong moral code, hands the reins to spoiled, extravagant Tom, with disastrous results. The question of whether to stage a play brings the brothers into as fierce a conflict as readers are likely to see in Jane Austen's novels, and highlights the differences in their morals. All the right arguments are on Edmund's side. Sir Thomas would not approve of theatricals. Tom does not have permission to spend money on frivolities like props and sets. Acting has somewhat immoral associations, and Maria Bertram's engagement requires her to behave in the most proper manner. Tom has rationalizations rather than arguments: the play will distract Lady Bertram and will be "most perfectly unexceptionable"—that is, tame in content. Sir Thomas would be happy to indulge his children in harmless fun, he is sure, and it will not cost much. In the end, however, Tom acts the oldest son and tells Edmund to mind his own business. Here and in the next chapters, Edmund's desire to be near Mary makes it hard for him to stand his moral ground. Henry Crawford and Mary want to act, and as Maria teases, "Can we be wrong if Miss Crawford feels the same?"

What early evidence appears in Chapter 14 of Mansfield Park to support the claim that staging the play is corrupting or harming the young people?

From the first, the theatricals bring out the less attractive qualities in the characters. They argue over everything—whether the play should be tragic or comic, which plays offer good roles to enough people, and who will take the leading roles. Fanny Price, watching quietly as is her way, is "not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all." These idle, rich young people have, readers might think, so little to occupy their minds that they overinvest in something as insignificant as a private play. Selfishness is especially evident in the way Maria Bertram plots, with Henry Crawford's support, to take the role of Agatha away from Julia Bertram, in another successful attempt to turn Henry's attention toward her rather than toward her sister. Everyone speaks of this matter pleasantly and politely, but Julia recognizes her sister's betrayal in Maria's smiles of triumph and satisfaction. In disgust, Julia proclaims Agatha an "odious, little, pert, unnatural, impudent girl" and withdraws from the theatricals. Her description, readers guess, is aimed, in fact, at her sister. The play puts a strain on their relationship, and with the way Maria dismisses James Rushworth, either by ignoring him or answering for him, her behavior foreshadows the scandal Maria and Henry will cause.

What temptations does taking the role of Anhalt pose to Edmund Bertram in Chapter 15 of Mansfield Park?

Anhalt is the role of Amelia's lover in the play, and Amelia is Mary Crawford's role. Mary objects to anyone but Edmund Bertram in that role. However, she cannot state her preference aloud, and Edmund dislikes the idea of another man playing scenes featuring Anhalt and Amelia. But Edmund has just lectured Maria on playing the role of Agatha, which will force her to act out immodest words and gestures, so to be consistent he must refuse to play Anhalt. In hopes of enticing Edmund to relent, Mary slyly wonders whether the role of Amelia, "a forward young lady," is scaring the men away. Anhalt, she adds, is a clergyman, so who better to play the role with honor than Edmund? In addition to Mary's attempts to coax Edmund into the role, Tom Bertram comes up with a ploy to force his brother to relent: he will ask a friend who lives nearby to play Anhalt. Tom cleverly escalates the situation, knowing that Edmund's sense of proper, modest behavior will disapprove of strangers invading the family circle and performing in a play that is to be completely private. Tom may also suspect Edmund's affection for Mary, in which case he hopes to trigger Edmund's jealousy as well. Mary agrees to this plan but remarks in a dig at Edmund, "It will be very disagreeable, and by no means what I expected." These temptations and influences lead Edmund to accept the part.

What is the significance to Fanny Price of the East room and Edmund Bertram's presence in it in Chapter 16 of Mansfield Park?

The East room is high in the house, near Fanny Price's attic bedroom. It had been the girls' schoolroom, and Fanny has many happy memories of studying there with Miss Lee. No one else in the family uses the room, so it becomes Fanny's by default. Here she reads, writes, and thinks; she has the privacy an introverted nature like hers needs. She keeps her books and mementos here. So important is the East room to Fanny that she doesn't complain of the lack of a fire, which Mrs. Norris has forbidden in her ongoing quest to denigrate Fanny in the guise of saving a little money for Sir Thomas. Fanny is the poor relation, on call to Lady Bertram and anyone else who needs her, but she is mistress of the East room. It represents the limited control Fanny has over her days and hours, control she delights in while there. Because Fanny loves Edmund Bertram, she is surprised but glad when he visits the East room, where she has fled to get away from the irritating conversations about the play. But he brings the play with him, seeking her advice (but really, it turns out, her permission and blessing) to agree to play Anhalt. Edmund has his arguments lined up, as always. He will spare the family embarrassment; he will shield Mary Crawford from having to act with a stranger. When Fanny cannot approve of his plan, Edmund begins to exaggerate, accusing Tom Bertram of "riding about the country in quest of any body who can be persuaded to act" and blaming Fanny for not taking up Mary's cause. He willfully interprets her embarrassed silence as approval and leaves her to her privacy and reading, but for Fanny, the room is now the scene of Edmund's failure to maintain his moral ground and her loss of him as model and defender. Its symbolic value as a refuge is diminished after Edmund's invasion of it to get Fanny's approval for a plan he knows is unwise, and another signal that his heart is elsewhere.

In Chapter 17 of Mansfield Park, what forces drive Maria Bertram and Julia Bertram apart, and why does the breach continue unchecked?

Mrs. Norris, the narrator observes in Chapter 4, has led Julia Bertram and Maria Bertram to think of themselves as the county belles, polished, pretty, possessing womanly accomplishments, and unaware of any faults. Yet readers know them to be capable of petty, demeaning behavior toward Fanny Price and disrespect toward their parents. Nevertheless, the sisters have been allies until now. Maria is safely engaged to James Rushworth and should be promoting her sister's happiness, but Henry Crawford's engaging flirtations have flattered both sisters into jealous competition that violates both their sisterly bond and Maria's obligations to Rushworth. Maria is quickly bored with her fiancé, who can talk only of landscaping and his dogs and who embarrasses her in front of the lively Crawfords. Julia, for her part, assumes Henry's attraction to her is real and cannot understand Maria's choice to hinder their courtship. Sniping, betrayals, furious words, and deeply hurt feelings follow. Where are the adults who should be supervising and guiding the sisters, checking their improper behaviors? Sir Thomas is necessarily absent, for business, but Lady Bertram awaits her tea and pets her pug, and Mrs. Norris is too busy spending Sir Thomas's money on sets. Tom Bertram is wrapped up in set building, and Edmund Bertram struggles "between love and consistency." Not one is paying attention to the catastrophe in the making.

How do the play and the circumstances of its production continue to cause trouble among the young people, including Fanny Price, in Chapter 18 of Mansfield Park?

"Vexation" is the word the narrator uses to describe what the young people experience as they work toward their performance. Julia Bertram sulks and stews; Fanny Price fears being pressed into a role; Edmund Bertram and Tom Bertram clash over expenses; and Tom, who earlier was satisfied with his minor role, now thinks it beneath him. When rehearsals start, people complain about their roles and refuse to take direction. The theatricals that were to bring such amusement to the cold indoor months are instead generating petty conflicts. Even Fanny, who has steadfastly rejected the theatricals as against her uncle's will, gets pulled in, looking forward to rehearsals and helping with sewing. While the play itself, with its slightly scandalous content, may be affecting the young people, it seems more likely the theatricals provide an occasion for poor behavior. With Sir Thomas absent and Mrs. Norris co-opted, no one checks the rising levels of vanity, jealousy, desire, and guilt that drive the young people. These emotions are present before the play and persist afterward, but during the preparation for the play, they become heightened to the point at which even Edmund begins to pressure Fanny to take the role Tom presses on her, just before Sir Thomas arrives to save the young people from their folly.

In Chapters 15 through 19 of Mansfield Park, how does the way in which Maria Bertram and Fanny Price treat James Rushworth reflect their personalities?

Other than Mrs. Rushworth, no character likes James Rushworth much—not even the narrator. He is a boring man who rarely thinks for himself and has few interests. But Chapters 15 through 19 create a somewhat sympathetic portrait of Rushworth because of how others treat him. Despite his wealth, he finds himself shunted off to the side again and again, and he feels hurt by such treatment—one reason he keeps mentioning his 42 lines and flashy costumes. Superficial and flirtatious Maria Bertram demeaningly pushes him away and schemes openly to play the role of Henry Crawford's character's lover; she "kindly" cuts back his lines, sure he cannot memorize them and perhaps eager to have him off the stage sooner. Rushworth repeatedly tries to get the others' attention, but only Fanny Price is his ally and the only character who is kind to him. She patiently helps him with his lines and deplores Maria's persistent avoidance of him. Fanny considers herself "insignificant," unattached to the dramatic goings-on, but Rushworth may be even less significant than she. In Chapter 19, when the Bertram siblings rush fearfully to greet Sir Thomas, the narrator describes them as "utterly heedless" of poor Rushworth's repeated question: "Shall I go too?" Rushworth may be a dull man, but his dullness does not excuse the poor treatment he receives from Tom, Mary, Henry—even Edmund—and certainly Maria.

In Chapters 19 and 20 of Mansfield Park, how does Tom Bertram's and Edmund Bertram's behavior differ when they explain the theatricals to their father?

Tom Bertram blames many people, but not himself, for what he calls a "mere trifle. He claims Lady Bertram required distraction and cheer; he blames John Yates for bringing "the infection" into the house; he blames his father for having previously indulged his children. He blames past habits and wet winter weather, and he tries, repeatedly, to downplay or change the subject, though Yates, clueless, brings it up again. Sir Thomas seems not at all surprised by his son's refusal to accept responsibility but instead looks at Edmund Bertram reproachfully. The next day, Edmund contritely confesses to his father his own guilt in the mess and explains how everyone—except Fanny Price—contributed. He must in fairness mention his siblings, but he is not unkind. Nor does he attempt to shift blame as Tom does. In many ways, Edmund is the more mature son.

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