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Mansfield Park | Themes

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Self-Discovery

Mansfield Park is a romance, but it is also something of a coming-of-age novel, particularly for Fanny, its central character. Only 10 when she is removed from the Price home and finds herself in the genteel world of Mansfield Park, Fanny must define herself in the context of her cousins; her stern, censorious aunt; her indolent, lax aunt; and her intimidating uncle. She must also decide what to value, how to behave, and where to serve in her little world. She defines herself as useful to her Aunt Bertram and being helpful, loyal, and obedient. But as she learns who she is, she learns also who she is not; she is not someone overly concerned with wealth and shows self-awareness in her steadfast refusal to marry a wealthy man she neither loves nor respects, despite the urging of others.

Questions of growth occupy other characters, too. Tom must figure out what it means to be heir to a wealthy estate; Maria wrestles with what it means to love and be a wife; Julia struggles to find a model to follow. Edmund, committed to his chosen career in the church, struggles with Mary's rejection of that career, while Mary wavers between the future of wealth she has long expected and the more modest future Edmund can provide.

Questions of marriage and career are, in fact, questions of who each young person will become. Unlike actual young people today, these characters are locking in their futures. They need guidance from trusted adults, they face challenges to their developing identities, and finally, they must rely, as Fanny tells Henry, on the "better guide in ourselves" to secure their places in the adult world.

Masks and Acts

Closely linked to the theme of self-discovery in Mansfield Park is the theme of masks and acts, which runs through much of the novel but is depicted primarily in the chapters that recount the young people's misadventures in theatricals. Posturing is part of the marriage game for the younger characters, especially when characters find themselves rivals for someone's attention, as Maria and Julia do before Maria's marriage, and as Mary does (even over imagined competitors) for Edmund's affection. People in the marriage market, Mary argues, "expect the most from others, and are least honest themselves," so after marriage, spouses find themselves "entirely deceived" once the act is over.

Some characters in Mansfield Park, however, never bother with masks. For example Mr. and Mrs. Price are so rough in their manners that Fanny longs for them to pay attention to the social niceties that mask unpleasantness and make living in close quarters more tolerable. Despite her own integrity, Fanny, too, hides her thoughts and feelings from almost everyone behind a mask of shy docility. How characters can know each other well enough to negotiate relationships is a question because they play to social expectations and hide their real selves.

Marriage and Social Order

Austen's novels deal with the making of marriages (for wealth and for love), and Mansfield Park is no exception. Eight young people—the Bertram siblings, the Crawford siblings, Fanny, and Rushworth—are all interested in who will marry whom, as parents and surrogates assist and insist on matches. But more than future love, fortunes and offspring are at stake. Marriage has a stabilizing effect in the novel. Mansfield Park runs efficiently with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in their respective places, and the Grants manage the Parsonage well, planting and caring for it and for the parish, each in his or her appointed role. In contrast, the admiral's home in London is a place of disorder, unfit for Henry and especially Mary, because the admiral lives openly with his mistress who presides there; and the unhappy, friction-filled marriages of Mrs. Fraser and Lady Stornaway breed discontent that affects Maria and causes Julia, with a bit more sense, to flee to a more respectable household. Furthermore, the Price household, the result of Mrs. Price's unfortunate marriage, is a disaster on all levels: from lack of money to lack of management to abundant alcohol and ill-bred children. Mrs. Price, with her indolent nature, might have succeeded being married to someone with Sir Thomas's temperament and finances; or if Mrs. Price had Mrs. Norris's disposition and skills, she could have managed far better married to Mr. Price.

It was a woman's duty to marry as well as she could, both for herself and her family. Lady Bertram did so, and helped one sister. The youngest sister did not, and has suffered for her choice financially and socially. This expectation is the reason Sir Thomas continually urges Fanny to accept Henry Crawford's proposal, for her uncle knows nothing about Henry's real character. It is also the reason Maria marries Rushworth, to everyone's approval. However, upon meeting the man, Sir Thomas (knowing his daughter) offers Maria the chance to back out of her engagement—an embarrassing but eventually acceptable action.

Henry imagines, when he courts Fanny, that one day Mansfield Park, Thornton Lacey, and Sotherton will be united into a happy community by marriages—Maria and Rushworth, Edmund and Mary, and Fanny and himself. There will be much going and coming, many companionable hours, and plans for improvement to these communities, he says, because of the marriages he hopes for. But when Henry and Maria abscond, marriages and dreams of stable communities are destroyed. What restores the stability of Mansfield Park is the marriage of Edmund and Fanny, whose useful days at the Parsonage create a "home of affection and comfort" with as much "earthly happiness" as anyone could expect.

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