Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Mansfield Park and the Question of Irony. (Miscellany)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Mansfield Park and the Question of Irony. (Miscellany)

Article excerpt

"IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." So goes the famous opening line of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a story rife with the ironies of social life. Not only does this statement set the tone of the novel, but, as Dorothy Van Ghent observes, it also defines Austen's fictive vision: "This is the first sentence of the book. What we read in it is its opposite--a single woman must be in want of a man with a good fortune--and at once we are inducted into the Austen language, the ironical Austen attack, and the energy, peculiar to an Austen novel, that arises from the compression between a barbaric subsurface marital warfare and a surface of polite manners and civilized conventions" (305). That surface tension between the "barbaric" and the "polite" is disrupted by the complacent but insistent word "must," a small word that conveys both the demands of a ruthless social order and those of romantic desire. A man must want a wife or the whole social and romantic mechanism of courtship and marriage falters. In the discussion that follows, I will use an analysis of this small word "must" to suggest that Mansfield Park, a novel generally thought to be impervious to what Van Ghent terms the "ironical Austen attack," is actually Austen's most deeply ironic narrative, one that implicitly questions its heroine's virtue, and in doing so questions its reader's expectations of virtue.

Lionel Trilling asserts that Mansfield Park is the one Austen novel "in which the characteristic irony seems not to be at work": "Indeed, one might say of this novel that it undertakes to discredit irony and to affirm literalness, that it demonstrates that there are no two ways about anything" (208). Marvin Mudrick agrees, writing, "Nowhere else does Jane Austen take such pains to make up the mind of her reader" (155). In effect, readers of the novel must forsake an ironic mode and follow Fanny's lead, taking her, and her perceptions of the world, with complete and unquestioning seriousness. As evidence for this kind of reading, some critics point to Austen's remark, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, that "the work is rather too light & bright & sparkling;--it wants shade" (4 February 1813) and her promise, in another letter, of "a complete change of subject--Ordination" (29 January 1813). Although most agree that Austen is probably not referring here to Mansfield Park, which was well under way when Pride and Prejudice was published, they do argue that she has written "something else" in the novel, something completely serious rather than ironic.

Other critics point to the explicitly didactic nature of Fanny's character. Richard Colby traces a kinship between Fanny and the heroines in the didactic novels of More, Opie, and Brunton, asserting that "[c]ertainly the characters of Mansfield Park would not feel out of place in the atmosphere of Coelebs in Search of a Wife" (83). He further argues that "Miss Austen's way with the Christian-didactic novel . . . is not to be compared with her flippant treatment of Gothicism and sentimentality, for her attitude toward her immediate contemporaries is fundamentally different. . . . The novelist of Mansfield Park, therefore, is no longer the mocker but the improver" (94). In other words, Austen wants us to view Fanny as a model Christian heroine--humble, submissive, longsuffering, selfless. And in many ways she does seem to lead us to this conclusion by setting her in opposition to her all-too visibly flawed, spiritually void fellow female characters: the insipid Lady Bertram, the mean spirited Mrs. Norris, the s elfishly erring Bertram sisters, and the unprincipled Mary Crawford. By comparison, stalwart little Fanny cannot but appear to a moral paragon.

And yet, as Trilling recognizes, no reader "has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is overtly virtuous and consciously virtuous" (212). …

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