How Does Mansfield Park Interrogate The Relationship

Of Power And Gender? Essay, Research Paper

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

6. How does Mansfield Park interrogate the relationship of power and gender?

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is a classic realist text, which is almost exclusively focused on a small strip of society, namely the upper-middle class of rural England; the class to which she herself belonged. Throughout her novel, Austen portrays the disadvantaged position of woman, presenting the issues of gender stereotyping and marriage choice as the main problems they have to confront. “Gender came to be seen as a construct of society, designed to facilitate the smooth-running of society to the advantage of men”1, proving that men gained power throughout the socially constructed subordination of woman.

Taking a post-structuralist approach to Mansfield Park, we can see that there is a “pretence that bourgeois culture is ‘natural’…to limit meaning in the interests of control, repression and privilege”2. Austen’s writing embodies middle-class values, and portrays an ideology that emphasises patriarchal rule, along with social and economic power, with little reference to the hardships of the working class. This text is therefore a form of oppressive ideology, in which women are kept in their socially and sexually subordinate place. When Sir Thomas Bertram discovers that Fanny will reject Henry Crawford’s proposal, the cruelty of male power is evident, enforcing the gender role. He does not understand her refusal of a secure marriage, and attempts to change her answer by redefining what she says. Sir Thomas is an authoritative male,



1 Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), p114

2 Literature in the Modern World, Dennis Walder (Oxford University Press, 1990), p306

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

and represents the male-dominated system that tries to take control of, and organise a woman’s life for her. Although Fanny represents female resistance by opposing Sir Thomas’s judgement, Austen conveys the over-powering pressure that she feels as “She could say no more; her breath was almost gone”1. Fanny’s weak position is shown through the punctuation and structure of her sentences, as she often begins to protest, but then breaks off at a dash, unable to continue. This contrasts with the clarity of Sir Thomas’s speech, in which he conveys a tone of certainty and finality, whilst speaking with ease. He is confident, and sure of his thoughts; so sure in fact, that he tries to impose them on Fanny, and will use any kind of pressure or cruelty to force her to comply with his decision that she should marry.

Sir Thomas trying to persuade Fanny to marry emphasises the fact that Austen’s novels operate around the framework of love, marriage and money. Many of the characters believe that there is no future development open to women of their class but marriage and the upbringing of children, making Fanny seem extremely unusual when she turns down Henry’s offer. This relates to the Marxist view that “dominant visible forms taken by modes of physical and social reproduction through history have been family and kinship structures”2, which utilises the gender positions of male power and female subservience. Austen uses words such as “career”, to reminds us that marriage was a woman’s livelihood, her “career” in the sense that it was her life’s work, and that she would grab any marriage that had good financial prospects.



1 Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (Penguin, 1994), p260

2 Criticism and Ideology, Terry Eagleton (Oxford University Press, 1976), p79

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

In the society and culture that Austen depicts, the male is regarded as the norm, as the central position from which the female is defined. This reflects structuralism’s theory that society and thinking are constructed on models of binary pairs, such as the pairing of man and woman. However, this pairing allows the man to take precedence over the woman, who is seen as inferior to his superiority. Women are defined by men, just as in Mansfield Park when there is pressure on Fanny to meet Sir Thomas’s expectations of what a woman is,

“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but

as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being…She

is defined and differentiated with reference to men and not he with

reference to her; she is the inessential as opposed to the essential. He

is the Subject, he is the Absolute – She is the Other. 1

Therefore Fanny’s personal identity is misrepresented by men, making her a female victim of male power and gender stereotypes, and depriving her of the right to her own feelings. However, because these gender differences, which lead to forms of inequality, oppression and exploitation between the sexes, are constructed by society, Austen presents them as normal. In the middle-class society she depicts, ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ have been associated with various images and qualities, just as they are in society. The men are powerful, solid and authoritative, whilst the women are vying for their attention and information. This is perhaps why Sir Thomas feels that he can tell Fanny that it is the duty of a woman to accept a good offer of marriage, when she refuses Henry Crawford



1 Woman and the Other, Simone De Beavouir from Literature in the Modern World, Dennis Walder, (Oxford University Press, 1990), p307

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

A major concept of post-structuralist theory is deconstruction, which stems from the French philosopher, Jaques Derrida. Derrida’s argument is that texts are really about what they appear ‘not’ to be, and he looks closely for contradictions and weak points, where different meanings from the original can be interpreted. When deconstructing Austen’s text, it becomes evident that what she doesn’t write can be even more revealing than what she does. When reading into her work, meanings can take on different values. Although sexual desire is never explicitly mentioned, there is a sense that it is a constant underlying threat to the characters of Mansfield Park. It is seen as a powerful force, which will disrupt the social order and marriages that are treated as normal and moral. When a group of characters visit the house and grounds at Sotherton, Fanny is left alone outside the iron gates of the entrance to the wilderness, while the others enter. This sets in motion the possibility of sexual desire, as Fanny resisting going through the gates indicates sexual repression, and lack of sexual power. This contrasts to Maria crossing the boundary into the park, which clearly conveys the idea of crossing a moral boundary. She deceives Mr Rushworth who she is to marry, and indulges in her infatuation with Henry Crawford. This creates a sense of betrayal, and raises moral issues about her faithfulness to Mr Rushworth. It also shows a female exerting her sexual power, which was not accepted at the time Austen writes, meaning that the subject could not be directly discussed. Therefore sexual affairs are a taboo, unspoken in the text, and only alluded to at most. However, in Mansfield Park they are essential to hold together the social and moral order, as well as reinforce the sexual power of the male characters. In a sense, one of the main


EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

subjects in Mansfield Park is immorality, just as much as morality. However, immoral subjects remain unspoken, and this determines the language Austen uses, which can give sexual connotations, but never be direct.

The main character in Mansfield Park is the heroine, Fanny. It is through her that many gender issues are conveyed and men are able to demonstrate their authoritative power. Although Fanny is in love with Edmund, he talks about female vanity and her appearance in a condescending manner. We can see his stereotyping of women, as he embarrasses Fanny by teasingly complimenting her looks. He says that she is “worth looking at”1, giving the impression that she is the object if his sexual desire. Edmund also patronises Fanny when he mentions her “beauty of mind”2, as the purpose of emphasising her intelligence is to flatter Sir Thomas for information about his business abroad and the slave trade. Austen is therefore defining the roles of the two sexes, in which men give information and advice to be received by women. This is typical of the patriarchal family, where there is a social hierarchy and ‘belief in the gentleman as a leader’3, promoting the figure of the father to an almost God-like status, whilst women occupy a secondary position.

Sir Thomas Bertram is also a central character in Mansfield Park, mainly because his authority influences the actions and language of other characters. When the play is being organised, Maria and Mrs Grant discuss Sir Thomas and the role he plays in the



1&2 Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (Penguin, 1994), p165

3 Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries, Marilyn Butler (Oxford University Press, 1981), p98

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

Bertram family. Mrs Grant thinks that Sir Thomas is a fitting head of the family, and this shows that his influence defines the existence of the women under his patriarchal rule. For example, when Lady Bertram is not in Sir Thomas’s presence, she is called a ‘cypher’, but when he is around her, her existence seems to take on a more substantial meaning. This demonstrates the solid influence that Sir Thomas has over the lives of the women in the household; we have all ready seen his authoritative power over Fanny. Sir Thomas portrays a solid picture of authority and control, creating what should be a stable living environment for the women of the house.

It is evident that in Mansfield Park there are two opposing themes, which are concerned with different approaches to life. Firstly, Austen stresses the importance of serious, conservative authority that highlights moral principles, mainly through the character of Sir Thomas Bertram. This parallels the tempting attraction of a livelier, self-indulgent life where behaviour is less principled and selfish gratification evident. These two themes are most clearly portrayed when the amateur theatricals take place at Mansfield Park. When there is a discussion concerning Mr Rushworth, Mary states “I often think of Mr Rushworth’s property and independence, and wish them in other hands – but I never think of him”1. She and Mrs Grant believe that a public role would suit Mr Rushworth, showing the powerful influence that owning an estate has. A Marxist would see this as exemplifying the ‘natural’ division of society into unequal economic classes by the right to ownership of property, creating the financial power



1 Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (Penguin, 1994), p134

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

of one class over another. Mary then goes on to ridicule the political system, and does not understand why Mr Rushworth would be put in Parliament to “represent the county”. At this point in the novel, the Mansfield party lacks any sense of authority, and this is related to Mary’s statement about the county lacking authority if the corrupt parliamentary system elects Mr Rushworth. We can see how Austen is incorporating aspects of the wider world into the novel through a trivial event. Mary’s character is also interesting in this scene, as she shows that a man can have power despite his intelligence, just because he is a man. Mary achieves a sense of power for even recognising this fact, as many women would just accept the power men had. However, by using Marxist theory it is evident that sexual inequality is a result of a “historically specific phenomena with historically specific roots located in the invisible levels of social reality”1, meaning that women could never achieve political power due to a socially constructed history that saw the female as weak, and too full of emotional sensibility to conduct themselves in important situations, such as Parliament. When thinking of this situation in relation to socialist feminism, we can see that ‘oppression is rooted in a capitalist system’2, showing that in Western society there can be no liberation of women without over-throwing the capitalist system, and this is virtually impossible – they are ‘social subjects under bourgeois capitalism’3.

It has become evident that the relationship between individuals and society is a main concern of Mansfield Park as it is a ‘novel of manners’, which observes and reports



1 Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd Ed, Terry Eagleton (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), p57

2&3 Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, Mary Eagleton (Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1986), p100

EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

on characters’ feelings, thoughts and decisions. Austen focuses specifically on the upper-middle class, large landowners, or members of the minor aristocracy. Sir Thomas Bertram is from the baronet level, and has economic power due to his large

estates in both England and Antigua. Sir Thomas’s business in the West Indies allows Austen to mark a boundary to the wider world, and issues that are associated with other countries, such as the slave trade. The slave trade was a much-debated issue throughout Austen’s life, as many people wanted it abolished, making it a political focal point. Slavery was therefore in the process of violent change, and effecting the economic power of many middle-class families whom owned plantations abroad, by reducing profit. This meant that people reading Austen’s novel would see Sir Thomas as facing a financial crisis, as well as recognising the current arguments over the morality of slavery. For the Bertrams’ of Mansfield Park, the income from Antigua is important to them, and this is made evident when Sir Thomas has to economise after Tom extravagantly spends money. It is also evident that women have no say, or control, over how money is spent, whilst the Bertram sons can spend money with no say over what it is on. Men therefore have power in terms of business and money, whilst women are ignored once again, with no say over how any of it is organised.

In conclusion, it can be said that the men in Mansfield Park have power in social, economic and political circles. However, the portrayal of male authority and power can be ambiguous at times. For example, Sir Thomas has a strong influence on the other characters, especially the women, and less so the men (as Tom spends all his


EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney

money, something a woman would never do), whereas Mr Rushworth is depicted as a fool, in an artificial position of power. Austen has therefore shown that in English society, a man of power can give can control the lives of weaker characters, but it is also possible that a fool, such as Mr Rushworth can represent the county in Parliament. Overall though, the qualities of sensible caution and materialism are identified with masculinity, and those of strong passion and emotional sensibility are characteristics of the females. Another important factor in Mansfield Park is the importance of omission, and by deconstructing the text, words and actions take on more meaning than what they seem to imply. Austen has taken into consideration all aspects of middle-class society, but does not go into depth about other classes. She seems to stick to what she knows, as she was also brought up in a middle class society. The society that she depicts is presented as hierarchical, and the men occupy an important position in relation to the women, as they can use their influence and power in a good or bad way. Austen takes the disadvantaged position of women, and analyses sexual stereotypes and prejudices in great detail. Therefore male power and female helplessness are explored fully in her novels.



Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Penguin, 1994)

Simone De Beavouir, Women and the Other; Literature in the Modern World, Dennis Walder (Oxford University Press, 1990)

Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries (Oxford University Press, 1981)

Mary Eagleton, Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader (Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1986)

Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (Oxford University Press, 1976)

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd Ed (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996)

Dennis Walder, Literature in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 1990)


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