Mansfield Park

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Manners vs. Morality Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mansfield Park, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Manners vs. Morality Theme Icon

Throughout Mansfield Park, Austen explores the complex relationship between manners and morality. Austen’s view of manners is difficult to identify, in part because Austen’s characters do not clearly define what they mean when they refer to “manners.” The meaning of manners in the book seems to be somewhat fluid, sometimes referring to knowledge of etiquette, sometimes to general politeness, sometimes to modesty, or gratitude, or pleasantness of personality, or social grace. Looked at more generally, the concept of manners in Mansfield Park refers to a series of expectations of a character’s social conduct.

At the book’s beginning, good manners, though highly valued at Mansfield Park, do not seem to correspond to good morals. For example, although Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas congratulate themselves on their supposed moral goodness when they take Fanny in, Austen damningly portrays their “kindness” as a way to make them feel and look generous rather than actual generosity for Fannys benefit. Fanny’s initial arrival at Mansfield Park reveals this dissonance, when ten-year old Fanny expresses intense anxiety and fear about her new home. Rather than recognizing Fanny’s unhappiness and trying to make her more comfortable, Mrs. Norris remarks that Fanny’s response is ungrateful and rude. Mrs. Norris then continually uses the idea of good manners, and Fannys failure to show them, as an excuse to criticize and demean her. From the very first chapters of Mansfield Park, then, Austen betrays the discrepancy between good manners and genuine morality.

As Fanny grows older, unlike the other characters, she does not deviate from her strong set of moral principles, even when it means that she appears ill mannered or contrarian. Throughout the novel, whenever Fanny resists something that contradicts her moral compass but that other people approve of, Mrs. Norris harshly reminds Fanny that she should be grateful to her uncle for providing for her and so do whatever the Bertrams want. For example, when Fanny refuses to act in the play because the texts questionable moral undertones, despite the fact that all the other young people are taking part, Mrs. Norris harangues her for her refusal. As for Fanny, she recognizes when other characters mask their immorality with good manners. Early on, she disdains Mary Crawford’s behavior when Mary speaks ungratefully and disrespectfully of her uncle the Admiral, identifying Marys comments, which Edmund waves off as mere affectation, as indicative of bad character. Moreover, Fanny refuses to marry Henry, despite everyone elses support, because she believes that, despite his charm and superficial kindness, he does not have good values—an impulse that turns out to be correct.

Curiously, its Fannys strict sense of propriety, which the novel seems to suggest is Fannys best character trait, that makes Fanny such an unlikeable protagonist to many readers (Austens own mother referred to Fanny as insipid). If this unlikeability is intentional, it may be Austens way of emphasizing that Fanny will not compromise on her morality for the sake of being liked by anyone— not even the reader.

As the novel progresses, Fanny begins to be explicitly frustrated by good manners, which so often hide immorality, and which often keep her from connecting with other people. At Mansfield, the rules of society prevent her from, for example, joining in social events above her class, or comforting Julia after Henrys rejection. By the time Fanny goes to visit Portsmouth towards the end of the book, she looks forward to relief from the strict rules of manners. The narrator, after describing how her sisters did not greet her with proper manners when she arrives, states, “But manner Fanny did not want. Would they but love her, she should be satisfied.”

However, as Fanny spends more time at her childhood home, she begins to see that their looser understanding of manners does not necessarily correlate to genuine morality or closer relationships. Fanny, in fact, starts to see the value of good manners, and longs for the quietness and respect of a household where manners are valued. She fails to develop meaningful relationships with her mother and most of her siblings despite the lack of structure and behavioral expectations in the house. While at Mansfield manners don’t necessarily result in morality or human connection, neither does the lack of manners at Portsmouth. Ultimately, when Fanny returns to Mansfield Park, she is happy to rejoin a household where manners are appreciated.

By the books end, Fanny has elevated herself to an equal place in the Bertram household, and her own volition in choosing a moral path is more respected. Through this exploration of Fanny’s developing sense of the relationship between manners and morality, Austen expresses her criticism of 19th century obsession with manners. Ultimately, the novel seems to indicate that, although good manners do not necessarily correspond to good morals, neither does their absence. Through Fanny, who moves beyond overly strict rules of manners while maintaining her commitment to treating others well, the novel suggests following ones own moral compass, in spite of social expectations, is essential to being a good person.

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Manners vs. Morality Quotes in Mansfield Park

Below you will find the important quotes in Mansfield Park related to the theme of Manners vs. Morality.
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 5 Quotes

Manners as well as appearance are…so totally different…A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: a close bonnet, for instance; looks very demure, and never says a word… The most objectionable part is, that the alteration of manners on being introduced into company is frequently too sudden. They sometimes pass in such very little time from reserve to quite the opposite— to confidence!

Related Characters: Mary Crawford (speaker), Fanny Price, Edmund Bertram, Tom Bertram
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary speaks this quote during a conversation with Tom and Edmund about debutantes, sparked by Mary asking if Fanny is “out” yet. Mary is confused by Fanny’s lack of interest in Henry, and thinks it might be because she is not yet looking for a husband.

According to Mary, the difference in behavior and manners between a girl who is out and a girl who is not out is significant, with girls who are out (having “debuted” into society) being much more talkative, flirtatious, and confident. Mary sees this distinction as important, but thinks it is tacky when the transition is too abrupt.

This quote shows how Mary favors proper appearances and manners over consistency of character, and thinks that women must alter themselves depending on the social situation and their romantic availability. Her objection to transitions that are too stark, however, might be due to the fact that a marked change in behavior shows the adjustment in manners to be unnatural, revealing the behavior’s artifice. To Mary, the art of manners is to be strategic without appearing so. Fanny’s consistency of character, then, regardless of who is around, and her lack of affection confuses Mary, because her behavior and manners do not fit into the stylized social codes of courtship and debuting.

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 20 Quotes

He was going…—He might talk of necessity, but she knew his independence.—The hand which had so pressed hers to his heart!—The hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now!...She had not long to endure what arose from listening to language, which his actions contradicted, or to bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society… and the farewell visit, as it then became openly acknowledged, was a very short one.

Related Characters: Maria Bertram, Henry Crawford
Page Number: 130-131
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator describes Maria’s thoughts as Henry says goodbye to her for the last time before she is married. Maria had hoped that Henry would propose to her, saving her from a loveless marriage to Mr. Rushworth, but he does not.

Though Maria is not an especially sympathetic character in the book, her heartbreak as it becomes clear that Henry will not propose to her is quite poignant. Henry has been leading Maria on, and divorcing his intimate, flirtatious words from his noncommittal actions (now that he is leaving, Maria has “not long to endure…listening to language which his actions contradicted”).

Maria is confused as to why Henry frames leaving as a necessity when she knows that he can go wherever he wants. In contrast, Maria’s movement, along with most women in 19th century England, is highly restricted because she does not have her own money and cannot travel alone. The difference in their freedom of movement, which Maria evokes by noting Henry’s ability to come and go, serves as just one example of how societal inequalities give Henry the power to control their relationship. Likewise, it is not in Maria’s power to propose to Henry.

Maria strongly feels her restrictions as a woman, especially in terms of marriage, as she indicates when she says she must “bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society,” evoking her earlier sentiments at Sotherton that she feels stifled by the iron gate, which represents the limits of socially acceptable action.

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 28 Quotes

Having…a general prevailing desire of recommending herself to [Sir Thomas], [Mary] took an opportunity of stepping aside to say something agreeable of Fanny.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, Sir Thomas Bertram, Mary Crawford
Page Number: 187-188
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator describes Mary’s manipulations at the ball thrown in Fanny’s honor. At the party, Mary, who knows that Sir Thomas does not like her, decides to compliment Fanny to him in order to endear herself to him.

The narrator shows how Mary’s good manners, far from being indicative of her inner goodness, are mostly the result of careful social calculations. The narrator’s revelation of Mary’s thought process casts doubt on all of Mary’s other kindnesses throughout the book, such as her attentions to Fanny, when the narrator might have held Mary’s inner monologue back. Mary’s superficiality makes her unreliable.

Chapter 34 Quotes

His reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used; her uncle read well— her cousins all—Edmund very well; but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with…His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, Edmund Bertram, Henry Crawford
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Henry has already declared his love for Fanny several days before, and Fanny has swiftly and thoroughly rejected him. Still, Henry continues to pursue her. Here, Henry is reading aloud from the Shakespeare book that Fanny was perusing.

Though Fanny is totally certain of her lack of interest in Henry, his reading greatly appeals to her, and she is spellbound by his performance, as he has a great talent for reading and acting. Previously, he showcased this gift during their ill-fated play.

Henry’s gift for acting seems to be a metaphor for, or actually genuinely related to, his charisma. He often says charming things that make him instantly likeable and attractive. However, like the acting, Henry’s lines are just that: lines, without genuine feeling or intention underneath. Henry’s silver tongue is rarely backed up by corresponding action, as evidenced by previous incidences, such as when he promised his love to Maria and then never asked her to marry him.

Chapter 38 Quotes

Fanny was in the narrow entrance-passage of the house, and in her mother’s arms, who met her there with looks of true kindness, and with features which Fanny loved the more, because they brought her aunt Bertram’s before her, and there were her two sisters…both glad to see her in their way, though with no advantage of manner in receiving her. But manner Fanny did not want. Would they but love her, she should be satisfied.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, Mrs. Frances Price
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

Fanny has just arrived back at her childhood home in Portsmouth for the first time since she left for Mansfield at age nine. Her mother and siblings greet her at the door.

As her family greets Fanny, Fanny notices how the children possess “no advantage of manner in receiving her.” The children, who have not been raised with the same emphasis on etiquette as the Bertram children, lack what Fanny can now recognize as the proper manners when greeting a guest. This meeting recalls Fanny’s first day at Mansfield Park, when Fanny was the one without manners, greeting the well-bred, well-mannered Bertram children.

The narrator, however, notes that “manner Fanny did not want.” The sentence’s direct, curt structure gives it a sense of definitiveness, as if Fanny has thought it over, and decided that she is tired of the strict manners of the Bertrams. Instead, the narrator notes, Fanny wants “love.” By juxtaposing love and manners, the narrator suggests that, at this point in the novel, Fanny views love and manners as in some way mutually exclusive.

Chapter 39 Quotes

She could think of nothing but Mansfield…Every thing where she now was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here… If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place…Here everybody was noisy, every voice was loud…The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.

Related Characters: Fanny Price
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator articulates this quote, Fanny has been at Portsmouth for long enough to realize that her childhood home is not what she imagined it would be. Fanny originally thought that she would prefer Portsmouth to Mansfield because at Portsmouth she would be loved by her mother and siblings and treated as an equal.

However, as this quote makes clear, Fanny finds the change of habits, pace, and environment overwhelming. Mansfield represents a countryside household, a place of peace and tranquility, and provides the nature and quiet that Fanny enjoys. Portsmouth, meanwhile, which represents a poorer urban household, is full of commotion and constant noise.

At Portsmouth, Fanny does not find the love she is looking for in her mother, who is too busy to spend time with her. Fanny also realizes that manners are more important to her than she thought. She longs to live in a space like Mansfield where the inhabitants respect each other’s peace and quiet. Fanny says that if Mansfield lacked “tenderness,” at least it had “good sense and good breeding,” suggesting that, though Mansfield is not as loving as she would like, she appreciates the manners there.

Chapter 42 Quotes

We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.

Related Characters: Fanny Price (speaker), Henry Crawford
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

Fanny speaks this quote during a conversation with Henry, who has come to Portsmouth to visit Fanny. When he asks for Fanny’s advice on a moral business problem, he says that Fanny is his ultimate moral compass, and Fanny responds with the above.

Fanny has spent much of the book following her own set of principles and values, staying faithful to them even when others have implored her to change her mind, such as during the play or after Henry’s proposal. Fanny’s commitment to listening to her own morality rather than public opinion serves her well, and the above quote is the crystallization of her moral philosophy.

Ultimately, Fanny’s moral compass is part of what leads her to consistently reject Henry, a decision that seems at first to be a bad one, but after Henry runs away with Maria, turns out to be correct.