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Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Symbols


The East Room

Mansfield Park has only a few settings: the estate and its grounds, including the Parsonage, are the main settings. A few chapters feature Portsmouth, one chapter is set in Sotherton, and characters and the narrator allude to London settings that readers never see. One setting—first mentioned in Chapter 16—has particular significance: the East room, allotted for Fanny's private use because no one else wants it. Nor does the stingy Mrs. Norris permit Fanny to light a fire in the room. Its coldness, however, is unimportant to Fanny, as she creates her own warmth within, shutting out Mrs. Norris's meanness, which contrasts with Sir Thomas's warmth when he discovers the situation.

This private space, once the girls' school room, is Fanny's treasured refuge from the demands of her day and the tensions of the family. The room is her "nest of comforts," a place "most dear" because of its associations and contents. So when, over the course of the novel, other characters come to the East room, they come almost as invaders or, at least, disturbers of Fanny's peace. Important scenes, such as the impromptu rehearsal for Lovers' Vows and Edmund's presenting Fanny with the gold chain, take place in this symbolic space.

The Gold Chains

Rarely does the narrator of Mansfield Park focus on what characters wear beyond saying merely, for instance, that Mary is turned out beautifully for Fanny's debut ball. Thus, the narrator's close examination and careful description of the gold chains, unlike other mention of personal items in the novel, takes on symbolic weight. The two gold necklaces, given as gifts to hold the cross William brought Fanny from his travels, function in two ways.

First, the chains represent relationships. Fanny's friendship (if it is that) with Mary is captured in the pushy gift of her necklace, which is, in fact, a sneak attack on Fanny's determined distancing of herself from Henry. Edmund's gift, on the other hand, is considerately purchased and given, a sign of their true friendship. Yet it quickly becomes co-opted into his own assault on Mary's heart. When Fanny wears both chains to her ball, the symbolism suggests she is caught in the middle of a love triangle of which she is a secret corner.

Gardens and Wilderness

Many young characters in Austen's novels enjoy a daily constitutional—a long walk in a natural environment—for exercise. In Mansfield Park, they walk in particular in the manicured gardens around the estate and the grounds of Sotherton, which are vast and old and include woods and wilds as well as kept gardens (and which, Rushworth worries and Henry agrees, are in need of improvement). Both natural settings are the scenes for important conversations and encounters, but the young people act differently in the gardens than they do in the wilderness. Gardens in the novel come to stand for order and control, whereas past the gate into the woods, order is at risk.

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