Like other Jane Austen novels, Mansfield Parks observes—and scathingly satirizes—the fickle hearts and courtship rituals of members of England’s genteel class as they fall in and out of love. Like so many other novels of its day, Mansfield Park organizes itself around a marriage plot, meaning that the action of the story drives toward a wedding as the plot’s culmination and fulfillment. The book’s characters talk about marriage obsessively, and as they do, they repeatedly articulate a view of marriage as, ideally, a love match. For example, Sir Thomas worries about Maria’s loveless engagement to Mr. Rushworth, and Edmund tells Fanny that she should only marry for love as Henry courts her.
Marriage, moreover, seems to be the only socially acceptable form that love is allowed to take—extramarital affairs are roundly condemned in the book. Most notably, the characters express unanimous horror after Maria and Henry disappear together to pursue their adulterous affair. Mary even suggests that Maria and Henry’s affair must end in a marriage, because otherwise there would be no saving them from total social disgrace.
But despite the characters’ professed commitment to marital love-matches, marriage in practice throughout the book serves primarily as a means for economic or social advancement, not emotional fulfillment. For instance, Austen shows the reader the transactional nature of marriage through the Bertrams’ open acknowledgement and acceptance that Maria married Mr. Rushworth for material comfort and social influence rather than love. Likewise, Fanny’s family enthusiastically encourages her to marry Henry Crawford because the match is socially and financially advantageous, despite the fact that Fanny repeatedly states that she does not love Henry. Meanwhile, Mary Crawford outright refuses to marry Edmund, despite her love for him, because she sees the marriage as being neither economically nor socially beneficial. So while Austen’s characters obsessively idealize marriage as a deep intimate connection between two lovers, in practice they carry out marriage primarily as an economic transaction.
The characters’ insistence on financially advantageous marriages makes their veneration of marriage bitterly ironic. The characters profess to cherish marriage as an institution, but they constantly degrade it by making it merely an instrument for achieving material, as opposed to emotional, comfort. That, in turn, renders the entire novel profoundly ironic, since the novel orbits around an institution that has clearly been hollowed out of any emotional or spiritual meaning. In a further irony, despite the novel’s commitment to a story that centers around marriage, and despite the characters’ insistence upon marriage as the only acceptable format for love, Austen gives the reader virtually no positive portraits of married life in Mansfield Park. Examples of messy marriages, on the other hand, are plentiful. Despite the fact that Maria married for money, Maria’s marriage to Mr. Rushworth is a disaster and, ironically, leaves her as a social outcast with a meager budget courtesy of her father.
Marriage seems to be particularly devastating for Austen’s female characters, even those who married “well.” Mrs. Grant, for example, is made miserable by her husband’s demanding expectations of her role as a housekeeper. Even Lady Bertram, whose marriage to Sir Thomas is not explicitly described as negative, suffers from such a profound sense of apathy in her marriage that she, devoid of any personality or passion, rarely leaves her couch.
Austen’s cynicism towards marriage, palpable in her depiction of marriage as a financial transaction, paired with her many portraits of unhappy marriages and their negative effects on women, ultimately renders the book’s “happy ending” somewhat sour. Even the marriages that are purportedly love-matches end poorly, like Mrs. Price’s marriage to Mr. Price, which produces a domestic life that is hectic, financially strained, and haunted by Mr. Price’s alcoholism. Even Edmund and Fanny’s marriage, supposedly a perfect match, and seemingly the desired ending to the book, is somewhat tainted. Edmund’s quick change of affection from Mary Crawford towards Fanny comes across as sudden and, as a result, unfulfilling and unconvincing. Likewise, though the narrator tells the reader that their marriage is happy, the book ends without showing any evidence of marital bliss. Both Fanny and the reader get what they are looking for, but Fanny’s nuptial success seems like far less of a triumph when put in context of dark view of marriage portrayed in the rest of the book. By making Fanny victorious in winning Edmund’s hand in marriage, but also showing how that accomplishment might not actually be such a happy one, Austen sardonically implies that the marriage plot, when carried out to its inevitable conclusion, is fundamentally unsatisfying because the institution of marriage itself is toxic.
Money and Marriage ThemeTracker
Money and Marriage Quotes in Mansfield Park
Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could.
There is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry…it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves… it is a manoeuvring business. I know so many who have married in the full expectation and confidence of some one particular advantage in the connexion, or accomplishment, or good quality in the person, who have found themselves entirely deceived, and been obliged to put up with exactly the reverse.
“Your prospects…are too fair to justify want of spirits. You have a very smiling scene before you.”
“Do you mean literally or figuratively? Literally, I conclude. Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.”
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.
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.
It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed– the two bridesmaids were duly inferior– her father gave her away– her mother stood with salts in her hands, expecting to be agitated– her aunt tried to cry…Nothing could be objected to when it came under the discussion of the neighbourhood, except that the carriage which conveyed the bride and bridegroom and Julia from the church door to Sotherton, was the same chaise which Mr. Rushworth had used for a twelvemonth before. In every thing else the etiquette of the day might stand the strictest investigation.
“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.”
Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author— never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of “My very dear Fanny,” which she could have looked at for ever.
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.
I should have thought…that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex, at least, let him be every so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.
I purposefully abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.