As part of my preparatory reading to a group read we had on Litalk on Middlemarch I read in Ashton's selection of essays by George Eliot one on the moral of Sophocles' Antigone. I was struck by the similarity of Fanny's stance against Sir Thomas and all the world to Antigone's stance against Creon and all the world, and wrote as follows:
The moral Antigone holds for George Eliot, as described by Gillian Beer in her feminist take on George Eliot, is that one of resistance as action. Antigone resists Creon; she is "defiant" for the right; she dares to go against the group. She is not a "blameless victim;" she is a figure driven by her own passions (for her brothers-another analogue); she is "a law-breaker with a profound respect for the law." She is a "martyr," a "revolutionary." The law at Mansfield Park is one marries money. It begins the novel; Sir Thomas's objection to bringing Fanny to the park is his boys may then not marry money; Mary Crawford wants to marry money; the one piece of advice Lady Bertram gives Fanny is her one duty is to marry money. Fanny will not marry Henry Crawford simply because he's money. Here I ask Tony to look upon Sir Thomas as the allpowerful, all rich Creon, and think about how he can cast Fanny out at a moment's notice, and how she stands up to him. Well how she sits quietly and refuses to yield.
George Eliot says of Antigone, she is "obdurate," unpleasant, "stubborn." No fun to be with at all when and if what she considers to be right (for Fanny let's add kind and courteous) is being directly and vilely flouted. The play-acting is vile in many of its aspects. It flouts deep feelings and manipulates them. So some body left unburied was to Antigone vile. It flouted deep feelings. It was deeply wrong for some of the same reasons Fanny finds the play-acting deeply wrong. Silent passion characterizes Antigone in her confrontations with Creon. Silence characterizes Fanny. She has no power or right to criticize the rich and powerful people she lives with. But she won't join them when she thinks they are wrong. She will speak out against Henry Crawford at a dinner party making everyone uncomfortable--and it's in his half-sister's house. Antigone was never any fun; Fanny's not either. But they won't do what they think is wrong. They may refrain from saying anything. What weapons have the powerless but silence and a refusal simply to agree. She won't give in to Aunt Norris about the play no matter how humiliated.
Antigone is a figure of "renunciation." So too Fanny. Antigone, writes Beer of Eliot's essay, is the "one who stood against the authority of the state and king, indeflectable, endured all to give her brother a proper burial." Well Fanny goes to Portsmouth and hangs in there. She may not realize that the trip was medicinally meant, but Sir Thomas does, we do. She never thinks to give into Henry Crawford until he begins to change, until his behavior and particularly at Portsmouth seems to embody decency, goodness, altruism. Fanny, also, as I have said, doesn't sit still at Portsmouth. She actively helps her mother; she spends money to settle an ugly quarrel; she begins lessons upstairs.
Nobody is very keen on Antigone in the play of that name except the young man, Creon's son, who is engaged to her. When she is walled up, he hangs himself. Poor Creon, what a stubborn lot these two young people are. Austen wants us in her way to understand Sir Thomas at least. I disagree again with John Dwyer's approach. Abstractions make us lose the quality of the vision, and the details of very book are its meaning.
Now Fanny is not literally an Antigone, and I don't think Austen had the allusion in mind specifically, even if we could find an English translation which she read. But the types are coterminous; to see them together illuminates what Austen is getting at. It also, importantly, shows wherein MP is not a conservative text in the sense of not for the established corrupt order.
Let me briefly add two further analogues which provide cross-currents. When we get to the scene where Henry Crawford is allowed to try to press Fanny to talk to him (Edmund turning to his newspaper, Lady Bertram falling asleep) to me the book seems to overdo it. I can't believe that Cinderella should now be the focus of the prince. It's too much of a wish-fulfillment. Persuasion is more convincing when it turns the haggard lady nobody wanted, nobody paid attention to into a young woman Mr Elliot seeks, and the Captain likes once again. The change is not so violent, and not so diametrically opposed. But I explain the scene in part because Austen is alluding to Clarissa and the scenes between Henry Crawford and Fanny recall the scenes between Clarissa and Soames with her family pressuring her to marry him, and the scenes between Clarissa and Lovelace, with Lovelace pressuring her to go to bed with him. Henry Crawford is a variant on both Soames and Lovelace, Fanny a variant on Clarissa. Well Clarissa is a perfect analogue for Antigone (for those who know Clary's story see above to all the details: Clary resists, renounces, is obdurate, can be unpleasant, is a rebel &c&c).
The other analogue is more simply the Christian heroine who turns the other cheek, the figure of charity, love, forgiveness, empathy. This Christian strain modifies the Antigone figure. Antigone is not moderate, she is not reverent, she doesn't forgive and see the other guy's point of view.
Finally of course Fanny is a realistic portrayal of a type. She loves plays, and enjoys acting. Not this play in this house at this time and place. (To which we could add, and then with these people--but Fanny is too charitable to think this way.) Fanny will yield at time, and she will keep secrets. She is realistically presented most of the time. She's no saint. Thus unlike some saints, many reformers she doesn't do major harm. She does manage to stay in the right without bringing on harm on others. While she is put off by her parents terribly, she says nothing to them, tries not to let them know how she feels (they do not do the same to her), and goes about to take Susan to the lending library. It's not quite St Teresa not the extreme giving of a Dorothea, no intense ardour, no unswerving eagerness, no self-immolation, but given what's available to her in her world, it does, it has a resemblance in motive and conduct. I love Dorothea but she is to me unreal inside at times. When Fanny is obdurate, we just don't look inside.
Let us remember Fanny is not into self-immolation. She is startled at Mary and Mrs Grant's assumption she'd leap at a Henry or any man who asked her. In this she recalls our Emma. She would not give herself up to a Casaubon. In the novel we find her in she doesn't underrate the importance of sex, never ignores it. Not for a moment. She is appalled at Maria Bertram's marriage to Mr Rushworth. She's sorry for Mr Rushworth, but marry him. Never.
Ellen Moody To Litalk May 21, 1997