(I wrote this essay for an independent novels assignment in my AP Literature class. We had to choose a literary criticism and use it to analyze any book we wished. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen and feminism? DUH. I’m the poster fan child for both. Anyway, this was really fun to write, and it won the Young Georgia Authors writing contest for 12th grade at my school! I’m so genuinely happy that my uber feminist argument and analysis could be shared on this scale!)
Throughout history, women have always struggled to be heard. They’ve fought for the right to vote, the right to own and inherit property, the right to speak out for both themselves and others. They have been treated as inferior to men with horrid frequency. They have been simplified and subjugated as housewives, child-bearers, and accessories.
During the eighteen hundreds, this problem was largely ignored – even by women. Many women felt as though, by fulfilling this inferior societal position, they were simply doing their duty. They were content in the “noble” aims with which their gender roles provided them.
Many feminist novel writers, however, were not satisfied with their lots in life. It was difficult to speak out without being silenced, difficult to tell their stories and be heard. So they wrote them down instead. They created characters ensnared in similar settings as they. They spoke through them to reveal the truths about the realities they faced. At least, this is what Jane Austen did.
In Mansfield Park, Austen explores the doubly confining role that her heroine, Fanny Price, plays as a lower class woman; Austen exposes and combats the treatment that both she and Fanny experienced in the hopes that these injustices would finally be understood, their voices finally be heard.
In the very beginning of the novel, a young Fanny is thrust into a world apart from that to which she was born and accustomed. Her mother marries a poor man, despite the wishes and rank of her family. It is from this choice that stems much of Fanny’s fate. For when her mother “marries down,” she takes the social status of her husband. This was always the case for women during this time period. They were completely reliant upon their husbands for both income and social status.
Unlike many, however, Fanny’s mother is eventually pitied by her relatives. They decide to do something that they deem charitable for her: relieve her of one of her children. Children were a heavy burden. They could not yet contribute to society and were another mouth to feed. Therefore, Fanny Price, the oldest daughter, is easily spared. She is sent away to Mansfield Park, where she is to live with her wealthy, arrogant, and oftentimes neglectful relatives, the Bertrams.
The Bertrams are “neglectful” in that they oftentimes overlook Fanny – everyone except Edmund, anyway. They view her as a charity case, a pet project. Fanny is of the lower class, and though they take her in and raise her, their goal is never to erase and reshape her identity. They never attempt to teach her the skills of a refined lady; she does not learn to paint or speak French like her cousins had years before. Her social class and gender define her, establish expectations for her. And this is made painfully obvious through Fanny’s immersion into her relative’s household.
As Fanny grows up, her position in the world is continuously reinforced by those around her. During this time period, women were expected to “come out” – that is, formally be introduced into society, to become an eligible wife. Until a woman had come out, she was expected to be quiet, demure. Afterwards, she should be the life of the party, a flirt, friendly to all, until she was married. Women were expected to change and act differently in order to “catch” a respectable husband. There was no such initiation for men. And while both of Fanny’s cousins partook in this ceremonious rebirth, Fanny herself did not, simply because she was poor. Mary Crawford struggled and failed to understand this, could not imagine how Fanny was so different and inexplicably herself. Once again, Fanny was subject to not only her femininity, but her socioeconomic status as well.
Another instance within this novel that the disparities between the genders is revealed is when Mary discusses men writing letters. This is an activity that all real men avoid, she says; they view it as a task and only share the most crucial and occasional news through their correspondence. Women on the other hand, were encouraged, taught, and expected to write lengthy letters, letters of frivolity and passion and gossip. Men could not be trifled with such matters – they had more important things to tend to. They were responsible for business, be it in the city, the park, or abroad. Women were to take care of domestic matters, and those that were wealthy had servants to oversee their homes, meals, and children for them. In fact, for an upper class woman such as Fanny’s aunt, it was perfectly normal for her to sit at home, lounging about, and doing absolutely nothing. And because Fanny is seen as her relatives’ subordinate, it often falls to her to look after her aunt. She travels less, does not have her own horse, and never speaks up. This last quality, in fact, is why Fanny Price is so misjudged, so irritating, and so admirable throughout the novel.
Fanny is completely silent. She is such a passive character for much of the book that oftentimes the reader will find him or herself completely infuriated by her lack of confidence, involvement, and voice. The reader is shown more of the supporting characters and their actions than Fanny’s own. The novel instead follows her observations of them. She lends her opinion and thoughts to much, but says very little. Therefore, she seems very shallow, very weak. But she isn’t.
In reality, Fanny is headstrong and opinionated. She knows right from wrong, which is evidenced when she refuses to participate in the play that her cousins wish to perform. She knows where she stands and, because she is so observant, she knows where others stand too. Moreover, she knows who she is, what she loves – whether or not she will admit it to herself.
Fanny is a feminist icon, and yet she does not voice these qualities to the outside world. She does not agree with her station, but neither does she oppose it. She longs for fairer treatment from her relatives, but she does not seek or expect it. This is because, once again, Fanny knows her place. Or at least, what society has decided is her place based on both her gender and social status. There is nothing she feels that she can do about it. And what could she truly do, when her cousins have done so much for her? Supposedly, anyway.
Austen uses Fanny’s silence to emphasize the many injustices that she as a character and woman faces. Had Fanny opposed them, combatted her treatment and oppressors in some way, she would appear stronger, certainly. However, this is and was not done. This was not how women of this time and position would have faced them. Fanny’s behavior reveals just how real discrimination based on gender and class were during the eighteen hundreds.
It is hard to believe that a family would treat their cousin like the Bertrams treated Fanny, but they did, for it was customary, proper. Not only have classes come so much farther, but women have also overcome so many obstacles stacked against them since this time period. Women are still discriminated against, still treated differently than men, but hopefully in the future they will fully gain their independence and equality. Hopefully every woman will have the opportunity to overcome the confines of her small attic bedroom, to find true love, happiness, and a chance to finally, after years upon years of remaining quiet for the sake of propriety, speak her mind, just as Fanny Price did in Jane Austen’s infamous Mansfield Park.