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Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Chapter 21 of Mansfield Park, how do Maria Bertram's reasons for marrying James Rushworth form a modest critique of upper-class marriage in Jane Austen's day?

The narrator explains Maria Bertram's decision to marry James Rushworth, even after her father generously offers to bear the embarrassment of a broken engagement on her behalf, with these words: "she had pledged herself anew to Sotherton." But the pledge is not to Rushworth as his wife nor to the Rushworths as a family of long-standing reputation—Maria commits to the estate of which she will be mistress. Maria chooses to marry wealth, as she is expected to do, and chooses the responsibilities of mistress of a great estate, but readers can infer that she is unprepared for the job. Henry Crawford is gone; Maria now knows he merely trifled with her, entertaining his vanity and staving off boredom. She decides, as the popular adage has it, that the best revenge—in this case for heartbreak—is living well. As Mrs. Rushworth, Maria will move among the best society, travel to new places, have novel experiences, and gain access to London's exciting social life. These opportunities are not harmful in themselves, but in Maria's case, they are a consolation prize. She is driven to her decision by "hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility." Her reasons for marrying a man she disdains will not serve her well, and no one is pressing her to do so. A woman's duty to marry advantageously can be performed only insofar as it provides for a comfortable arrangement; marrying for wealth alone in this case will not. Despite the social responsibilities of his day, Sir Thomas, in fact, suspects future unhappiness and, out of love and concern for his daughter, tries to prevent it. He wants to follow social convention in marriage when such convention is beneficial but is willing to buck convention when it fails. He sees clearly the mismatch between lively Maria and dull Rushworth; he senses wealth and status alone will not satisfy his daughter. He is against the loveless and unfriendly arrangement—or transaction—as is, readers may infer, Jane Austen.

In Chapter 22 of Mansfield Park, why is Mary Crawford discontented, and how does her state of mind affect Edmund Bertram, Mrs. Grant, and Fanny Price?

These are the sources of Mary Crawford's discontent in Chapter 22: She is accustomed to London and finds the country tolerable mainly because Edmund Bertram is there. Mary cannot appreciate the country's slow-changing beauty, as Fanny Price does when she comments on the hedge's growth. Mary could be happy in a country home, perhaps, if the house were modern, the company lively, and amusements frequent. She frets over Mrs. Grant's preoccupation with household matters, which remind her of the cares of married life on a smaller income than what Mary wants. Mrs. Grant laughs away the criticism. Mary will know such worries by and by, she says. She's distressed by what she perceives as Edmund's lack of ambition for fame and wealth. She tells him, as they banter, that she "must look down upon any thing contented with obscurity when it might rise to distinction." Yet she cannot offer Edmund a way to rise—he should have joined the military a decade ago, she says unhelpfully. Mrs. Grant does not take Mary's complaints seriously and tells Mary that she, too, will have household problems. Edmund, however, does listen more seriously because he knows Mary's complaints for what they are: obstacles to her accepting him as a husband. Fanny looks on, as so often, pained by her knowledge of Edmund's love for Mary. Fanny loves the country and, even more, loves Edmund as he is. She has seen how Mary can bring out Edmund's worst qualities.

How and why does the relationship between Mrs. Norris and Fanny Price shift in Chapter 23 of Mansfield Park?

In the novel's first volume, Mrs. Norris lectures and criticizes Fanny Price endlessly, always from a decidedly superior position in the family. But the theatricals incident causes Sir Thomas to recognize Fanny as maturing into a thoughtful young woman whose mind has much in common with his. Because Mrs. Norris has failed to curb Tom Bertram's dramatic ambitions, Sir Thomas now sees his sister-in-law as more a meddler than a helper. As Fanny rises in Sir Thomas's opinion and takes on more significance in the smaller family circle at Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris sinks in importance. So when Mrs. Grant invites Fanny to dine at the Parsonage, Mrs. Norris, who has never been asked, is jealous. She lectures Fanny on the necessity of gratitude, as usual, and tries to dictate what Fanny may talk about at dinner, and complains that "five is the very awkwardest" of guests to seat, subtly insulting Mrs. Grant's invitation. She insists, were Julia Bertram home, that she would be invited, not Fanny. And when Sir Thomas orders the carriage to take Fanny and Edmund Bertram to the Parsonage, because dark comes early on November evenings, Mrs. Norris is floored. "Quite unnecessary!—a great deal too kind!" she objects before telling herself the carriage is really for Edmund. Mrs. Norris's attempts to diminish Fanny's enjoyment of dinner out and appreciation of Sir Thomas's generosity border on desperation.

In Chapter 23 of Mansfield Park, why does Henry Crawford's opinion of Fanny Price change, and how is his action, in Chapter 24, consistent with what readers know about him?

At dinner, Henry Crawford is his usual cynical self, insulting James Rushworth, until Fanny Price blushes in embarrassment. Fanny listens with "silent indignation" as Henry recalls the theatricals, and says he wishes weather had delayed Sir Thomas's return long enough for the play to take place. Provoked into the angriest speech she has ever made, Fanny defends Sir Thomas, then "trembled and blushed at her own daring." Henry, taken aback by her outburst, sees her in a new, and more appealing, light and announces to Mary Crawford the next day his intention to make "a small hole in Fanny Price's heart." He wants her to love him now that she has denounced him. Henry wastes no time figuring out how to court Fanny. He researches her brother William Price's circumstances, knowing a favor to William is a gift to Fanny. He hangs around Mansfield Park, on his best behavior, to change her opinion of him. He even feels jealous of William's admirable courage and honesty, though he quickly recalls the advantages of wealth. Henry may actually be in love with Fanny, but his actions and conversation with Mary suggest he sees her as a conquest. Her dismissal of him wounds his vanity; winning her love would soothe his pride.

What effects does the discussion of the parsonage at Thornton Lacey have on Edmund Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Fanny Price in Chapter 25 of Mansfield Park?

Henry brings the parsonage up during the card game after dinner at the Parsonage. He is full of plans for its improvement, plans Edmund Bertram cannot afford, and offers to lease the house and make the improvements himself. Sir Thomas takes the occasion to ensure that Edmund intends to occupy the parsonage full time, rather than stopping in to preach on a Sunday and otherwise leaving the parish to its own devices, as some clergy at that time did. Sir Thomas would be ashamed of a son content to be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey "every seventh day, for three or four hours." That such clergy exist is why Henry Crawford, earlier, teases Edmund about how idly he can go about earning his living and why Mary Crawford thinks so little of London clergy. The discussion provokes contrasting responses in the young people. It gives Edmund the opportunity to reassure his father by stating his intention to be a clergyman in residence, caring fully for his parishioners. Fanny Price thinks sadly of how she will miss Edmund's presence at Mansfield Park. But Mary Crawford reacts most strongly. The discussion forces her to face facts: Edmund will soon take orders, despite her displeasure. She cannot sustain her comforting fantasy, cannot "shut out the church, sink the clergyman, and see only ... the occasional residence of a man of independent fortune." Yet she also cannot express her anger at Sir Thomas for having instilled duty in his son or even rail at the church for taking the man she loves from her.

In Chapters 26 and 27 of Mansfield Park, how does Edmund Bertram account for Mary Crawford's behavior in forcing the necklace on Fanny, and why does he mistake Mary's nature?

Edmund Bertram has convinced himself that Mary Crawford has a sensitive nature and can intuit others' feelings. These are, for men of his time, womanly and desirable attributes. In Chapter 21, he praises Mary's "great discernment" to Fanny Price and remarks, "I know nobody who distinguishes character better." To Edmund, Mary is gracious and compassionate, so her gift of the necklace is, in his view, entirely natural to her character. But to Fanny, "this doubtful good of a necklace" is more burden than gift. First, it is not in her nature to accept such an expensive gift from someone with whom she is not even on a first-name basis. Second, Mary's persuasive tactics are manipulative. She has so many gold chains that she cannot wear or even remember them, she claims, contrasting her wealth to Fanny's dependence. Her display of her jewelry represents her greater desirability as a wife, because of her wealth, than Fanny's. And she suggests (and later confirms) she contrived to give Fanny a necklace Henry Crawford bought and wants her to have. Mary is, Fanny thinks, "careless as a woman and a friend." When Edmund thoughtfully gives Fanny just the sort of chain she likes for William's cross, she is moved by the genuine affection behind the gift—a stark contrast to the manipulative gift Mary gives and a symbol of their close friendship. Yet when Fanny shows Edmund Mary's gift, he slips into a "reverie of fond affection" and praises her generosity and taste. Despite knowing Fanny's preferences, Edmund pressures her to wear Mary's gift to the ball, even "if it be a sacrifice," to please and honor Mary. Perhaps Edmund is blinded by love. But perhaps Edmund, an open man with honest motivations, simply cannot imagine a gift might be given with ulterior motives, because he would never give such a gift.

In Chapter 27 and elsewhere in Mansfield Park, why does Fanny Price keep allowing Edmund Bertram to cause her pain by confiding in her about Mary Crawford?

Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price are cousins who have grown up as surrogate siblings who love each other. Since her arrival at Mansfield Park, Edmund has played the role of doting older brother; he simply does not see Fanny as someone he might marry, so it is not surprising he turns to her as a confidante. He overvalues Mary Crawford's occasional moments of kindness toward Fanny and hopes "the shadow of coolness" never comes between "the two dearest objects I have on earth." Such statements hurt Fanny, but she does not signal her discomfort to Edmund in any way, for several reasons: Gratitude: Fanny's gratitude to Edmund for his many kindnesses is the habit of a decade. She feels obligated to be there for him when he needs her. Realism: Fanny knows herself to be the poor relation—how could she forget, when Mrs. Norris frequently reminds her? As the narrator strongly puts it, "To think of [Edmund] as Miss Crawford might be justified in thinking, would in her be insanity." Selflessness: Because she loves Edmund, Fanny wants him to be happy. She does not think Miss Crawford deserves him, but she puts his happiness above hers. Shyness: Fanny has trouble expressing her wants and needs. For much of the novel, not one person knows her true heart, though many characters assume they do.

What is Maria Bertram risking both literally and symbolically by climbing the stone fence in Chapter 10 of Mansfield Park, and how does Henry Crawford abet her actions?

Maria Bertram refuses to wait while James Rushworth, her fiancé and host, brings the key and allows her to enter the woods. She complains of feeling trapped like a bird in a cage of "restraint and hardship" she wants to throw off. Henry Crawford likely reads Maria's complaint as a rejection of her hated engagement; he encourages her to climb the fence, with his help, if she doesn't need Rushworth's "authority and protection" and wants "to be more at large" (that is, free). When Maria boasts she can climb the fence alone, Fanny Price cries out warnings: Maria might tear her dress or be hurt falling into the ditch on the other side of the fence (the ha-ha). The fence is the literal boundary between the landscaped, controlled gardens around the house and the wilder forest, but here it takes on symbolic value, too. Watchful adults—Mrs. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris—are present in the gardens, but the woods offer privacy. With Rushworth at the house, Maria and Henry grab the chance to venture into forbidden territory. Once out of sight beyond the ha-ha, they may engage in improper behavior—even a quick kiss would qualify. So Fanny's warnings about a torn dress may represent the threat to Maria's chaste behavior; Maria may end up in a ditch symbolically, not just literally. Maria's dress survives the climb, but the novel leaves what happens between Maria and Henry in the woods to readers' imaginations.

To what lines of thought and action does Mary Crawford's dissatisfaction in Chapter 29 of Mansfield Park lead her?

Edmund Bertram is gone—and for the worst reason, as far as Mary Crawford is concerned—to take his orders and become a clergyman. Moreover, Mary and Edmund's conversations, as they danced at the ball, were argumentative; she criticized the church again, and they parted on less than friendly terms. She now regrets her words. The weather is gray, Mary is stuck in the country because Henry is unavailable to take her back to London, and worse yet, she is still torn about whether she should, or could, settle for a husband of Edmund's ambitions and limited income. Having decided she cannot, she is nevertheless jealous of the sisters of the young man Edmund is staying with in Peterborough. Daughters of a clergyman, they would be all too happy, she suspects, to marry one. Mary, sure that only Fanny Price's modesty and surprise at Henry Crawford's affections keep her from accepting his proposal, confides her worries to Fanny without guessing the pain she causes. So she likely misreads Fanny's response when she asks whether Fanny thinks Edmund will marry one of the Owen sisters. Fanny "stoutly" thinks not; and when Mary presses, "perhaps you do not think him likely to marry at all—or not at present," Fanny blushes and says, "He is best off as he is." Mary likely takes comfort from this statement, but she does not understand Fanny's intent: Mary Crawford would not suit Edmund and would, in fact, influence him negatively if they married.

What do Henry Crawford and Mary Crawford assume about Fanny Price as they discuss marriage in Chapter 30 of Mansfield Park, and on what do they base these assumptions?

When Henry Crawford reveals his desire to marry Fanny Price, Mary Crawford is thrilled: "You will have a sweet little wife; all gratitude and devotion." Never does it cross her mind that Fanny might not welcome Henry's proposal. Fanny's family and friends will "rejoice" as well, Mary is sure. Henry assumes that Fanny will accept his proposal ("I think I shall not ask in vain") and then at length praises Fanny's merits and explains his plans to make her happy. He sounds very much in love, and his claim that having Fanny to confide in is his greatest joy speaks well of his idea of marriage. Perhaps, readers may think, Henry is reformed. But Mary and Henry base their assumptions on social expectations about marriage, expectations Fanny does not share. In Chapter 29, when Mary frets about the Owen sisters, she reminds Fanny about every woman's duty "to do as well for themselves as they can." That is certainly her intent and the reason she is ambivalent about Edmund Bertram's prospects. The possibility of Fanny's not returning Henry's affection, out of what Mary calls the "gentleness and gratitude of her disposition," never crosses Henry's mind. Fanny is not conventional. Fanny balks at marrying for socially acceptable reasons. Her refusal drives conflicts in the novel's third volume because Mary and Henry have made one correct assumption: Fanny's friends agree she should jump at the chance to marry Henry.

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