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Jane Austen

Jane Austen EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney 6. How does Mansfield Park interrogate the relationship of power and gender? Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is a classic realist text, which is almost exclusively focused on a small strip of society, namely the upper-middle class of rural England; the class to which she herself belonged. Throughout her novel, Austen portrays the disadvantaged position of woman, presenting the issues of gender stereotyping and marriage choice as the main problems they have to confront. “Gender came to be seen as a construct of society, designed to facilitate the smooth-running of society to the advantage of men”1, proving that men gained power throughout the socially constructed subordination of woman. Taking a post-structuralist approach to Mansfield Park, we can see that there is a “pretence that bourgeois culture is ‘natural’ .. to limit meaning in the interests of control, repression and privilege”2.

Austen’s writing embodies middle-class values, and portrays an ideology that emphasises patriarchal rule, along with social and economic power, with little reference to the hardships of the working class. This text is therefore a form of oppressive ideology, in which women are kept in their socially and sexually subordinate place. When Sir Thomas Bertram discovers that Fanny will reject Henry Crawford’s proposal, the cruelty of male power is evident, enforcing the gender role. He does not understand her refusal of a secure marriage, and attempts to change her answer by redefining what she says. Sir Thomas is an authoritative male, 1 1 Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), p114 2 Literature in the Modern World, Dennis Walder (Oxford University Press, 1990), p306 EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney and represents the male-dominated system that tries to take control of, and organise a woman’s life for her.

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Although Fanny represents female resistance by opposing Sir Thomas’s judgement, Austen conveys the over-powering pressure that she feels as “She could say no more; her breath was almost gone”1. Fanny’s weak position is shown through the punctuation and structure of her sentences, as she often begins to protest, but then breaks off at a dash, unable to continue. This contrasts with the clarity of Sir Thomas’s speech, in which he conveys a tone of certainty and finality, whilst speaking with ease. He is confident, and sure of his thoughts; so sure in fact, that he tries to impose them on Fanny, and will use any kind of pressure or cruelty to force her to comply with his decision that she should marry. Sir Thomas trying to persuade Fanny to marry emphasises the fact that Austen’s novels operate around the framework of love, marriage and money. Many of the characters believe that there is no future development open to women of their class but marriage and the upbringing of children, making Fanny seem extremely unusual when she turns down Henry’s offer.

This relates to the Marxist view that “dominant visible forms taken by modes of physical and social reproduction through history have been family and kinship structures”2, which utilises the gender positions of male power and female subservience. Austen uses words such as “career”, to reminds us that marriage was a woman’s livelihood, her “career” in the sense that it was her life’s work, and that she would grab any marriage that had good financial prospects. 2 1 Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (Penguin, 1994), p260 2 Criticism and Ideology, Terry Eagleton (Oxford University Press, 1976), p79 EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney In the society and culture that Austen depicts, the male is regarded as the norm, as the central position from which the female is defined. This reflects structuralism’s theory that society and thinking are constructed on models of binary pairs, such as the pairing of man and woman. However, this pairing allows the man to take precedence over the woman, who is seen as inferior to his superiority. Women are defined by men, just as in Mansfield Park when there is pressure on Fanny to meet Sir Thomas’s expectations of what a woman is, “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being ..

She is defined and differentiated with reference to men and not he with reference to her; she is the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – She is the Other. 1 Therefore Fanny’s personal identity is misrepresented by men, making her a female victim of male power and gender stereotypes, and depriving her of the right to her own feelings. However, because these gender differences, which lead to forms of inequality, oppression and exploitation between the sexes, are constructed by society, Austen presents them as normal. In the middle-class society she depicts, ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ have been associated with various images and qualities, just as they are in society.

The men are powerful, solid and authoritative, whilst the women are vying for their attention and information. This is perhaps why Sir Thomas feels that he can tell Fanny that it is the duty of a woman to accept a good offer of marriage, when she refuses Henry Crawford 3 1 Woman and the Other, Simone De Beavouir from Literature in the Modern World, Dennis Walder, (Oxford University Press, 1990), p307 EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney A major concept of post-structuralist theory is deconstruction, which stems from the French philosopher, Jaques Derrida. Derrida’s argument is that texts are really about what they appear ‘not’ to be, and he looks closely for contradictions and weak points, where different meanings from the original can be interpreted. When deconstructing Austen’s text, it becomes evident that what she doesn’t write can be even more revealing than what she does. When reading into her work, meanings can take on different values. Although sexual desire is never explicitly mentioned, there is a sense that it is a constant underlying threat to the characters of Mansfield Park.

It is seen as a powerful force, which will disrupt the social order and marriages that are treated as normal and moral. When a group of characters visit the house and grounds at Sotherton, Fanny is left alone outside the iron gates of the entrance to the wilderness, while the others enter. This sets in motion the possibility of sexual desire, as Fanny resisting going through the gates indicates sexual repression, and lack of sexual power. This contrasts to Maria crossing the boundary into the park, which clearly conveys the idea of crossing a moral boundary. She deceives Mr Rushworth who she is to marry, and indulges in her infatuation with Henry Crawford.

This creates a sense of betrayal, and raises moral issues about her faithfulness to Mr Rushworth. It also shows a female exerting her sexual power, which was not accepted at the time Austen writes, meaning that the subject could not be directly discussed. Therefore sexual affairs are a taboo, unspoken in the text, and only alluded to at most. However, in Mansfield Park they are essential to hold together the social and moral order, as well as reinforce the sexual power of the male characters. In a sense, one of the main 4 EL2 – Essay 2 Angela Bathgate Tutor – Julie Marney subjects in Mansfield Park is immorality, just as much as morality. However, immoral subjects remain unspoken, and this determines the language Austen uses, which can give sexual connotations, but never be direct.

The main character in Mansfield Park is the heroine, Fanny. It is through her that many gender issues are conveyed and men are able to demonstrate their authoritative power. Although Fanny is in love with Edmund, he talks about female vanity and her appearance in a condescending manner. We can see his stereotyping of women, as he embarrasse …


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