Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park

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Inheritance and Meritocracy Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Money and Marriage Theme Icon
Manners vs. Morality Theme Icon
Letters and Character Theme Icon
The Country vs. the City Theme Icon
Inheritance and Meritocracy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mansfield Park, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Inheritance and Meritocracy Theme Icon

Throughout Mansfield Park, issues of inheritance and meritocracy recur as Austen explores how characters’ different positions in families and society affect their incomes. Austen models the inheritance system in the novel on that of real-world England in the early 1800s, when inheritance worked through the system of male primogeniture, meaning that a father’s entire fortune goes to his first born son. Often, childless uncles’ would set aside money for younger male children. Otherwise, younger sons could not legally inherit their fathers’ estates, unless their older brothers died before their fathers. The purpose of this system was to ensure that family estates remained intact.

In the world of Mansfield Park, the implications of this system can be seen immediately in how it affects marriage—due to the rules of inheritance, women cannot inherit, and so must marry rich men in order to lead lives of luxury. Moreover, in the Bertram family, Austen gives the reader two sons: Tom, who is older, and a younger son Edmund. Tom, although set to inherit all of his father’s fortune and his title, clearly is wildly irresponsible with money. Tom struggles with a gambling problem and prefers parties to managing estates. His debts are so enormous that the family must use money that Edmund’s uncle Mr. Norris set aside for him to pay them off. Sir Thomas tries to tell Tom he should be ashamed of to steal Edmund’s fortune like that, but Tom, who has grown up feeling that he is entitled to do what he wants, is unabashed. Tom clearly has not done anything to deserve his fortune (and, in fact, has shown that he would likely run the estate into the ground). However, according to law, Tom must inherit his father’s assets and his title.

Edmund, meanwhile, who has grown up knowing his whole life that he would not have a fortune of his own, shows himself to be much more responsible and obedient than Tom. Not only is Edmund not a drinker or gambler, but he also strives to please his father and make him proud of him. Edmund, who becomes a minister, speaks passionately about his career, showing not only his commitment to hard work, but also his inclination toward moral behavior and righteousness. By contrasting the two brothers, Austen clearly implies that Edmund would be a more deserving heir to Sir Thomas’s estate. Their juxtaposition, then, ironically highlights how ineffectively the system of inheritance works. Though the system is intended to keep fortunes intact, Tom would almost certainly squander his fortune to nothing, whereas if Edmund could be allowed to inherit, Sir Thomas could rest easy knowing that the estate will be preserved.

Austen’s implied challenge to the inheritance system becomes more interesting when considered in conjunction with the middle and lower class characters in the book. Fundamentally, Austen’s implicit judgment that the inheritance system should be more meritocratic leads to the question of inheritance in general: if characters’ wealth and social status should not be determined by their birth order, should their wealth be determined by their birth at all? In order words, why should Maria, who is vain and vapid but the daughter of a baronet, be considered of a higher social status than Fanny, who is smart and morally righteous, but the daughter of a naval officer?

Sir Thomas himself thinks something along these lines in the final few pages of the novel, and even goes a step further, when he compares how his own children have turned out to Fanny, William, and Susan. As he thinks about the Price children’s virtues, Sir Thomas acknowledges “the advantage of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.” Essentially, Sir Thomas thinks not only that his own children are no more deserving than the Price children, but also that there may be some spiritual or personal benefits to having the mentality that you must work for your livelihood and your luxuries. Placed conspicuously as the novel’s conclusion, Austen champions the merit of middle class people over the indulgence of the upper class, foreshadowing a common theme in later 19th century literature. In this way, Austen uses her mocking critique of the inheritance system to subtly undermine perceptions of class, valuing meritocracy over aristocracy.

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Inheritance and Meritocracy Quotes in Mansfield Park

Below you will find the important quotes in Mansfield Park related to the theme of Inheritance and Meritocracy.
Chapter 1 Quotes

There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris…as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up… how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram… they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different.

Related Characters: Sir Thomas Bertram (speaker), Fanny Price, Mrs. Norris
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Sir Thomas discusses with Mrs. Norris the possibility of adopting Fanny. They air the potential problems that might arise from such an arrangement, and Sir Thomas expresses his concern that Fanny or Maria and Julia might forget her status and think that Fanny is as high-class as Sir Thomas’s own daughters.

Sir Thomas’s insistence that his daughters and Fanny “cannot be equals” speaks to his anxiety about maintaining class distinctions. Sir Thomas insists that “their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different,” showing how he believes the class system to be static, and without the potential for change or upward mobility. Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris’s obsession with class distinctions is part of why Fanny goes unloved and neglected for so much of the book—it’s merely what’s “proper” to treat her as less valuable than the Bertram girls, in an early sign of how good manners can hide (or even encourage) cruelty. For despite Sir Thomas’s concern not to “depress her spirits too far,” Mrs. Norris verbally abuses Fanny, constantly reminding her of her lower class, and Fanny can never feel totally comfortable in the house. Sir Thomas’s early preoccupation with ensuring that they maintain a difference between his daughters and Fanny wears away over the course of the book, however, as Sir Thomas begins to value Fanny’s good character above her class, and the class system itself is revealed to be arbitrary and unfair.

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Chapter 15 Quotes

“I am quite ashamed of you, Fanny, to make such a difficulty of obliging your cousins in a trifle of this sort— so kind as they are to you! Take the part with a good grace, and let us hear no more of the matter, I entreat.”
“Do not urge her, madam,” said Edmund…
“I am not going to urge her,” replied Mrs. Norris sharply; “but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her— very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Norris (speaker), Edmund Bertram (speaker), Fanny Price
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange takes place after Fanny refuses to take part in the play, because she does not like to act and because she objects to the morals presented in the script. Mrs. Norris criticizes Fanny for being selfish, and Edmund tries to defend his cousin. Mrs. Norris accuses Fanny of being “obstinate” and “ungrateful.”

Throughout the book, Mrs. Norris terrorizes Fanny and manipulates her into doing what she wants by reminding her of her debt to the Bertrams. Mrs. Norris frequently uses Fanny’s lower class status and financial dependence to try to manipulate her into doing as Mrs. Norris wishes, and even acting against her morals. When Mrs. Norris tells Fanny to take the part “in good grace,” she suggests that by refusing the part, Fanny is showing bad manners. This quote shows how Mrs. Norris pits good manners against morals, using the idea of good manners as a way to encourage Fanny to do something she finds unsavory. While the reader and many of the characters might think that good manners and good morals ought to go hand in hand, Mrs. Norris shows how, by following her sense of right and wrong, Fanny risks social reprove and accusations of selfishness and rudeness.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, Julia Bertram
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote, in which the narrator describes Fanny and Julia’s mutual suffering, occurs during the rehearsals for the play, when Fanny and Julia are repeatedly forced to watch their love interests flirt with other women. Fanny is upset when she sees Edmund with Mary, while Julia is heartbroken over Henry’s attentions to her sister Maria.

Despite their mutual suffering caused by similar situations, Fanny and Julia do not confide in each other. Julia is not forthcoming about her emotions to Fanny, while Fanny, who still juggles her lower status in an upper class household, feels that it is not her place to bring up Julia’s heartbreak. Fanny’s own feelings about Edmund, meanwhile, also might be seen as inappropriate because of her lower status, so she keeps those to herself.

As a result, neither young woman speaks of their hardship. This situation shows how the class system prevents women from supporting each other across class boundaries, despite the fact they all suffer under the system of marriage that prevents them from taking initiative in their own love lives and having control over their own choices.

Chapter 22 Quotes

“I am so glad your eldest cousin is gone that he may be Mr. Bertram again. There is something in the sound of Mr. Edmund Bertram so formal, so pitiful, so younger-brother-like, that I detest it.”
“How differently we feel!” cried Fanny. “To me, the sound of Mr. Bertram is so cold and nothing-meaning–so entirely without warmth or character!–It just stands for a gentleman, and that’s all.”

Related Characters: Fanny Price (speaker), Mary Crawford (speaker), Edmund Bertram
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Mary and Fanny are sitting in the garden together, having recently started up a friendship. Mary talks about how she likes that Tom is gone from Mansfield, since while Tom is gone, she is allowed to call Edmund “Mr. Bertram” instead of “Mr. Edmund Bertram” (according to the rules of etiquette, the latter is used to distinguish that Edmund is the younger brother).

Mary and Fanny’s disagreement shows the difference in their love for Edmund. Fanny finds the title stiff and cold, as it removes Edmund’s first name, thus removing his individuality. Mary, meanwhile, is caught up in the glamour and status of a more stately name, showing her desire to marry into wealth and power.

The women’s different reactions reflect the fact that, while Mary continues to wish that Edmund were the older brother, and so the heir to Sir Thomas’s estate and fortune, Fanny loves Edmund for who he is.

Chapter 24 Quotes

[Henry Crawford] longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt the highest respect for [William] who, before he was twenty, had gone through such bodily hardships, and given such proofs of mind. The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!

Related Characters: William Price, Henry Crawford
Page Number: 159-160
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Henry is listening to William Price discuss his adventures in the navy. Henry, who has never had to make his own wealth, and instead manages the state he inherited, is admiring and envious of William’s life.

Henry romanticizes William’s self-made career, reveling in the lifestyle he leads, which Henry sees as highly masculine and heroic. When Henry thinks of his own lifestyle, he sees it as self-indulgent, and wishes that, like William, he’d had to make his own way in the world.

In this quote, Austen implies the meritocratic philosophy she weaves throughout the book, showing how Henry feels that his character has suffered by not having had to struggle like Henry. Though Austen’s message is meritocratic, she and her characters also glamorize lower and middle class struggle in a way that is out of touch with the realities of financial insecurity.

Chapter 27 Quotes

Yes, that uncle and aunt! They have injured the finest mind; for sometimes, Fanny, I own to you, it does appear more than manner: it appears as if the mind itself was tainted.

Related Characters: Fanny Price (speaker), Edmund Bertram (speaker), Mary Crawford, The Admiral
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund speaks this quote as he and Fanny discuss some of Mary’s character flaws just before the ball. Edmund has just come from the Parsonage, where Mary told him she would dance with him for the last time that night, since he will soon be ordained as a clergyman.

Edmund suggests that he believes that Mary’s upbringing has ruined her character, one of many times throughout the book that the characters bring up questions of nature versus nurture. Though Mary is born a gentlewoman, Edmund believes she has been corrupted by the bad influence of the Admiral, and so has gone against her better nature.

Here, Edmund acknowledges the difference between manner and morals. Though he implies that he originally thought some of Mary’s more controversial comments were only “manner,” which is to say affectation or light-hearted frivolity, Edmund has come to see that they may in fact indicate a bad moral core.

Chapter 31 Quotes

She took the letters as he gave them. The first was from the Admiral to inform his nephew…of his having succeeded in the object he had undertaken, the promotion of young Price…Sir Charles was much delighted in having such an opportunity of proving his regard for Admiral Crawford, and…William Price’s commission as second Lieutenant of H.M. sloop Thrush… was spreading joy through a wide circle of great people.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, William Price, Henry Crawford, The Admiral
Page Number: 202-203
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote describes Fanny reading the letters that made William a lieutenant, thanks to Henry’s uncle, the Admiral. The letters both prove that William was made lieutenant, and also that Henry catalyzed the promotion itself. The letters also show Henry’s large network and social influence, which helped to secure the promotion.

The use of Henry’s social connections, primarily the result of his social class, to obtain William’s promotion has troubling implications for Austen’s meritocratic themes in the book. Although William is frequently held up as the self-made man, William obtained his post in the navy thanks to Sir Thomas’s help, and now has received his promotion thanks to Henry. The fact that William needs to use his rich, upper class connections to secure his positions suggests that even situations that seem meritocratic are often based on preexisting, underlying structures of wealth and class.

Chapter 48 Quotes

In [Susan’s] usefulness, in Fanny’s excellence, in William’s continued good conduct and rising fame, and in the general well-doing and success of the other members of the family…Sir Thomas saw repeated, and forever repeated reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, William Price, Sir Thomas Bertram, Susan Price
Page Number: 321
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Sir Thomas is thinking over the Price children’s success in contrast to his daughters’ disgrace. Throughout the last few chapters, after Maria’s transgression, Sir Thomas has been contemplating how upbringing affects children’s behavior.

Sir Thomas, who has been the children’s benefactor for varying degrees of time, takes pride in their accomplishments. Significantly, Sir Thomas acknowledges the “advantages of early hardship and discipline,” conditions of Fanny, William, and Susan’s upbringing that his own children, who were pampered and spoiled, did not have. This is a big departure from Sir Thomas’s sentiments at the beginning of the book, when he worried that his children’s proximity to Fanny, with her lack of manners and education, would degrade them.

Sir Thomas also endorses the “consciousness of being born to struggle and endure,” which seems to be another way of saying that he sees the benefit of connection to a working-class identity, and the sense of responsibility that brings. Sir Thomas’s acknowledgement that needing to hard work to achieve good seems to further undermine his earlier class snobbishness, as he expresses sentiments that are downright meritocratic. However, he’s also offering these sentiments from a place of privilege—it’s easy for a rich person to vaguely comment on the values poverty can teach.