Heaven defend me from being ungrateful! : gender and colonialism in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has earned a reputation as a difficult text for its politically-charged negotiations of ethics and unsatisfactory heroine. Since Edward Said presented the novel as an example of British literature that contributed to “an expanding imperialist venture” (95), scholarly attention has shifted to focus on the extent to which the novel critically engages with macrocosmic power structures and hegemonic discourse. That is, how does Mansfield Park’s description of power dynamics at home reflect slave-related issues in the foreign atmosphere? Austen’s interest in and familial connections to slave-related issues, contemporary cultural awareness of abolitionist sentiment, and textual allusions to the slave trade all contribute to the novel’s counterpoint between domestic and foreign spaces: the Bertram family is economically dependent on a slave plantation in Antigua. A microcosm of plantation life, Mansfield Park represents the dilemmas of marginalized women who are presented with choices to rebel against or submit to patriarchal authority. In order to preserve her own physical, emotional, and psychological safety, Fanny Price bids for patriarchal favour. While others are punished severely for their rebellion, Fanny is rewarded for her submissive choices and enjoys an elevated social status. However, she inspires no reformation and remains an unsatisfactory heroine. Like the ‘grateful Negro’ of contemporary plantation tales, Fanny functions to stabilize the status quo through her gratitude and loyalty, reinforcing society’s tightly-controlled boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Mansfield Park’s revelatory strength is that it exposes the mechanisms by which power is produced and maintained in domestic and imperial spaces.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
CommitteeThorpe, Douglas; Stephanson, Raymond A.; Hynes, Peter; DesBrisay, Gordon
Copyright DateMarch 2006
treatment of female characters
treatment of slavery