Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'

Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'

Joyce Kerr Tarpley
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'
    Book Description:

    Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park offers a rigorous philosophical examination of the novel, the first book-length, close reading to do so.

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-1897-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Reading Austen’s Ethics
    (pp. 1-19)

    Among the qualities that account for Jane Austen’s enduring appeal, her ability to synthesize, or combine and unify, seemingly disparate elements and ideas within a complex and coherent whole suggests itself to be an essential one. This synthesizing habit of mind distinguishes various aspects of her work, from her realism to her ethics.¹ Most significant for this discussion, however, is Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight regarding Austen’s synthesis of ethical themes: “It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Constancy: A Definition
    (pp. 20-56)

    Jane Austen uses the word “constancy” in all of her novels except Northanger Abbey, and the term appears more times in Mansfield Park than in any of the other novels.¹ The word is etymologically derived from the original Latin noun constantia, which has a range of meanings: “firm, standing, steadiness, firmness, immutability, unchangeableness, constancy, perseverance … agreement, harmony, symmetry, consistency … firmness of character, steadfastness, immovability … self-possession” and more.² Central to her ethics is an understanding of the true meaning of words like constancy, for she shows us that carelessness in defining words leads to errors in thought, speech,...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Constancy and Education
    (pp. 57-86)

    The word “mind” appears approximately 160 times within the text of Mansfield Park, more than in any other novel.¹ What better signal could the author send to her readers that her principal concern is the mind, in particular its education or mis-education and the consequences thereof? That education is a major theme in Jane Austen’s novels is such a self-evident “universal truth,” it hardly bears repeating. Many, varied, and extensive are the critical treatments of this education, and commentators have noted that Austen focuses on it more in Mansfield Park than she does in her other novels.² This reading adds...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Constancy, Education, and Leisure: An Interlude
    (pp. 87-98)

    The responsible use of freedom is the primary goal of Fanny Price’s Christian liberal education. Austen concerns herself with a particular freedom—leisure—a word that appears more times in Mansfield Park than it does in her other novels,¹ suggesting its particular importance therein. To be educated rightly, the young people in the novel not only must learn what it means to use leisure responsibly but also must learn what it is and more important, what it is not. Constancy offers a means by which they can do so.

    For the leisure class represented in Mansfield Park, a liberal education...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Practice of Constancy
    (pp. 99-132)

    Space, meaning the realm within which Austen’s narrative unfolds, is one of the most analyzed and intriguing aspects of her art.¹ Austen herself describes her narrative space as a “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush.”² She may have meant this remark in a playful, ironic way, but her first serious commentator, Walter Scott, reinforces it with his “Flemish school of painting” analogy, wherein he praises her realism but not her “limited” scope.³ G. H. Lewes, in his celebratory mid-nineteenth-century appraisal, parallels Scott’s assessment; he describes the “limitations of her genius”...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Constancy, Love, and Beauty
    (pp. 133-163)

    A characteristic of Jane Austen’s work that suggests a Christian sensibility is the theme of the beautiful as the good. Henry Crawford’s impressions of Fanny Price, filtered through the narrator’s perspective, illustrate that sensibility by representing Fanny’s beauty in spiritual terms:

    Fanny’s charms … Fanny’s beauty of face and figure, Fanny’s graces of manner and goodness of heart were the exhaustless theme. The gentleness, modesty, and sweetness of her character were warmly expatiated on, that sweetness which makes so essential a part of every woman’s worth in the judgment of man. … Her temper he had reason to depend on...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Constancy, Nature, and Beauty
    (pp. 164-181)

    Fanny’s responses to nature represent a process of interrogation, investigation, or inner dialogue about beauty in the natural world. By observing her dialogue on nature and her gradual growth of consciousness, readers may learn that in order to develop constancy in the full sense, both self-examination and Christian faith are requisite. The former impels her to question the beauty that attracts her even though she may, at times, be unable to resist its allure. The latter guides her to subordinate her free will to the divine Will so that her mind may remain open to revelations about nature’s beauty. Fanny’s...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Constancy and the Pursuit of Truth
    (pp. 182-217)

    The question of truth is vital to this reading of Mansfield Park in three important ways. First, there is the pursuit of truth represented by the conversations—both internal and external—of characters in the novel. There is the truth—or realism—of that representation itself, as manifest by specific narrative techniques (especially with dialogue) of which Austen is an innovator. Finally, there is the larger truth—as effected by a combination of the first two—that conveys itself to the reader. Constancy plays a role in all three expressions of truth. It grounds the right pursuit of truth—enacted...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Constancy, Narrative Style, and Truth
    (pp. 218-242)

    By virtue of her innovative use of narrative techniques, Austen anticipates some of the insights of Mikhail Bakhtin. Each of the three “global concepts that reappear” in Bakhtin’s writings seems applicable to Austen in some way: the concept of “prosaics” (as opposed to poetics), the concept of “unfinalizability,” and the concept of dialogue.

    Prosaics is “a view of the world and an approach to literature … [that] is suspicious of explanatory systems” such as “ ‘theoretism’—the explanation of human behavior in terms of an abstract system of norms.” Bakhtin sees theoretism “as inevitably impoverishing the real complexity of life,...

  14. CONCLUSION: Reading Austen’s Ends
    (pp. 243-258)

    Jane Austen’s narratives suggest that to answer rightly the question, “How should I live my life?” one must first know to what end that life aspires. Thus, in the realm of ethics, aiming for the right telos, or end, is paramount. With her unusual final chapter in Mansfield Park, she responds to the question of ends, making more intelligible thereby the way in which her heroine, Fanny Price, lives her life for the span of time during which we know her.

    “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient...

  15. APPENDIX: Mansfield Park Plot Summary
    (pp. 259-262)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-270)
  17. Index
    (pp. 271-288)