Problems with the Narrator

Very early in the group read a number of people protested against the way the narrator in Mansfield Park favors some characters and does a hatchet job on others.

To this I wrote two different postings:

The first was written in response to Lucy Balazek:

I would say then that what the problem is, is that in Austen's other books you can accept, admire, and/or like the characters Austen means you to accept, admire, and/or like, but in this case cannot. The techniques of all the books are the same; the flaws in execution you find may be found in all the books--more so in those which come before MP and again in Persuasion.

Perhaps Edith's explanation comes in here: in Persuasion Austen had learned how to make one like the mostly submissive and therefore unmodern heroine (as we shall see when it comes to an important decision such as marriage Fanny is in fact less persuadable than Anne).

I will agree with Lucy that there are things about Fanny that make me uncomfortable that Austen does not appear herself to find unacceptable. I would sum these up as kissing the whip. Fanny kisses the whip. Not even in her thoughts do we find her reproaching those around her for the way they treat her; she turns her cheek to the point that she actually feels sorry for her Aunt Norris later in the book. But I have been slammed for my views on this one when I brought them up vis-a-vis Anne Elliot. Kirstin Samuelian has put it well (with Povey) that perhaps in Austen we are always to judge more critically what their society has driven them to, and not the individuals themselves but I am not sure this is true.

Ellen Moody

The second was a more general response to many postings but again I was responding particularly to Lucy Balazek:

RE: The Narrator in MP & Austen's Art in all 6 Novels

In response to Lucy's commentary on the edge in the narrator's voice in MP and the sympathy the narrators displays towards some and acrimony towards other characters, I'd like to say this is absolutely the way all Austen's novels work. In all Austen's novels she deliberately conceives of some character's personalities, develops their situations, and then places them in dramatic scenes which invite us to sympathize with them; in all Austen's novels she also delibertely conceives of other character's personalities, develops their situations, and places them in dramatic scenes in such a way as to lead us to dislike them.

At random and without making the slightest effort beyond turning over the first few pages of Austen's first two books, I can find as we do in MP that edge in the narrator's voice with respect to a character whose personality and situation we might sympathize with if the narrator did not lead us to look upon that character with a certain scorn, distaste, irritation (what have you). For example, upon being introduced to Mrs Allen we are told:

Mrs Allen was one of that numerous class of females whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who culd like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentle woman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind, were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man like Mr Allen" (Chapman Northanger Abbey, I;2, 20).

It is not that Austen dislikes a gentle woman who is good-natured and trifling but that it suits her purpose to use such a conception to her satiric story and in the sentence above to make an ironic point about who gets married, i.e., everyone and it's no great accomplishment.

In Sense and Sensibility we have similarly satirically-driven portrait of Mr John Dashwood's darling son, but of course it is embedded in a discourse which is showing up the irrationality of all people, the injustice of who gets to inherit, the lack of rewards for the virtuous (in fact many many things), as well as the truth that children are not angels:

"The whole was tied up for the benefit of this child, who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland had so far gained on the affections of his uncle by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old: an imperfect articulation, n earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a greal deal of noise, as to outweigh all the value of the attention which, for years, he had received form his niece and her daughters (Chapman S&S, I:1, 4).

As to character conception itself--central to Austen's books, she makes us sympathize with Anne Elliot, but in situation she is not all that different from her sister, Elizabeth Elliot. I can imagine a portrait of Mrs Clay which would be very sympathetic, but the narrator doesn't not allow it.

In an ironic novelist like Austen if we are to read any of her books and understand her meaning, we have to concur with the narrator. Even in Emma the technique is not to allow us to decide whether we love Mrs Elton but to rely on certain shared assumptions about life and what is good and what is bad. It is bad that the old man was so unthinking as to leave his property to a foolish 2 year old. The reason people marry one another for are often wholly inadequate if we take marriage to be something supersignificant.

Thus in MP too I can imagine a depiction of Maria Bertram which would be deeply sympathetic--not in our present chapters, but later. She never needles Henry Crawford as Mary Crawford needles Edmund Bertram. Once she is grown up she is no more cruel to Fanny than Mary; in fact she is it who tells the miser Aunt Norris to her face she is a sponger. In MP Austen has a moral conception about what is good--now it's complicated and can only be gotten by following the ironical and sympathetic language and vein of emotion, and patterns within the whole. The moral conception will be unfolded through a far more distanced and realistic presentation than we see in the earlier 3 books (NA, S&S, and P&P), but still we are to identify with the heroine as oppressed and powerless and look at what made her oppressed and powerless and how her personality was formed, and we are to look very critically and harshly at Mrs Norris, to a lesser extent but still strongly at Lady Bertram, again to a still lesser extent at Mary and Henry Crawford, Tom and Maria and Julia Bertram, again still lesser at Sir Thomas (the conception here is brilliant and there is a development and change in his character -in the narrative which is not sufficiently done justice to in the criticism--he too learns things in Antigua and again once he comes home, very slowly, but he gets there), and I aver there is a fond irony very forgiving which surrounds Fanny Price very similar to that we find in Anne Elliot. If we cannot bear Fanny that tells us something about us, not about Austen's book; it also tells us we disagree with her moral vision, not that her book is different in technique or assumptions from the other books. The careful reader may have noted I have omitted Edmund. I suggest Edmund is meant to be viewed in the same smpathetic light with some forgiving ironies cast at him that we are to view Fanny. But there is a problem in the realization or maybe conception which I hope to deal with in a separate posting.

What I am trying to say here is I don't see what Lucy's problem with the narrator is here. The way the narrator is used is exactly the way the tool is used in the other books--except perhaps it is as skillful and subtle as what we find in Emma. Why do you not "trust" the narrator in this book when you "trust" her elsewhere? Is it that you do not like the morality that is presented--nor the vulnerable powerless heroine? I could have identified with, if not loved Maria Bertram had Austen permitted me to, but she won't, and I accept it.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 30 January 2003