Though Sir Thomas intends to return to Mansfield in November, Tom comes back at the end of August. Mary, who used to enjoy hearing his stories of gambling and parties, realizes upon his return that she prefers Edmund. She is disappointed by this, but gives up trying to attract Tom, and it quickly becomes apparent that Tom was not especially interested in her either. The lack of interest between them becomes so pronounced that the narrator notes that, even if Tom were to become the owner of Mansfield Park on the spot, Mary still would not want to marry him.
Mary’s dreams of marrying Tom and becoming the next Lady Bertram are dashed when, upon Tom’s return, she realizes her preference for Edmund. The fact that she gives Tom up shows that, unlike Maria, Mary has limits on her ambitions of marrying for money and a title. This renders Mary a somewhat more nuanced, sympathetic character.
Henry, meanwhile, leaves Mansfield for his property in Norfolk for two weeks. During his absence, Maria and Julia are extremely bored.
Maria and Julia’s boredom without male attention shows their shallowness.
During those two weeks Maria spends a lot of time with Mr. Rushworth, who bores her out of her mind, and that makes her miss Henry more. Julia misses him as well, and believes she is Henry’s favorite thanks to hints from Mrs. Grant. Maria, meanwhile, believes that she is the favorite because of Henry’s advances. Henry returns after two weeks to resume his game of seducing Maria and Julia.
Mrs. Grant’s interference shows how romance in the world of Mansfield Park, far from being a spiritual connection between two people, involves the manipulations of many outside influences. This undermines traditional ideas of love as a natural emotional connection.
Fanny, however, continues to dislike Henry. She tries to hint at her feelings to Edmund, but he does not catch on. Edmund mentions that Mrs. Grant believes Henry prefers Julia, and that, though he has not seen any proof of it himself, he hopes that is the case. Fanny says that it almost seems like he prefers Maria, except that she is engaged, and Edmund speculates that this is so he will have an ally in winning Julia’s affections. Fanny guesses she must be mistaken.
Edmund, with whom Fanny usually shares similar opinions about almost everything, fails to see that Henry is leading his sisters on. Fanny’s perception of the situation, meanwhile, shows how her position as an observer allows her to critically distinguish between real love and Henry’s games.
Fanny overhears Mrs. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris discussing Julia and Henry one night at a ball, which happens to be Fanny’s first. Mrs. Norris draws Mrs. Rushworth’s attention to Maria and Mr. Rushworth, who are dance partners. Maria does look happy and talks excitedly to Mr. Rushworth—at least while Julia and Henry are dancing nearby. Mrs. Norris points out Julia and Henry to Mrs. Rushworth, and they agree that it is a nice match.
In another instance of appearances being deceiving, Maria looks happy with Mr. Rushworth at the ball. However, the narrator’s note that Julia and Henry are dancing nearby suggests that Maria is just trying to make Henry jealous. Her outward affection toward Mr. Rushworth is unreliable.
Tom appears. Fanny hopes he will ask her to dance, but instead he pulls up a chair to talk to Fanny about horse racing. He says, “If you want to dance, Fanny, I will stand up with you.” Fanny declines, and Tom says he is glad because he’s very tired. Mrs. Norris asks Tom to join them in playing cards to entertain Mrs. Rushworth. Tom, who is totally uninterested in playing, tells Mrs. Norris that he was just on his way to dance with Fanny. They head off to the dance floor.
Tom’s offer to dance with Fanny feels like an obligation or favor to her, showing how Tom’s good manners, although seemingly generous, are in fact hollow. Once dancing with Fanny becomes a convenient way for Tom to avoid playing cards, he discourteously whisks her off without even asking again if she’d like to dance.