Immorality Plays

Sinful Atmospherics in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

It might seem that the novels of Jane Austen have nothing to teach a society that scorns all she values, but her most complex novel, Mansfield Park, has salutary shocks for modern readers. Reading it joltsus first when we recognize that its core concern is moral conflict. We get a secondary shock when we realize that modern literature is seldom really about right and wrong. In modern novels, when there is a conflict over what characters ought to do, the choices often are crudely drawn, even cartoonish. In much literature, such choices are raised only so they can be ridiculed.

The real question in such books isn't about what is right and wrong; the real question is whether the protagonists will be happy, or liberated, or self-actualized, or whatever. In plenty of modern fiction, the characters wander from experience to experience, without any sign in them or from the author that some choices might be better than others. Mansfield Park, however, takes moral choices to be of supreme importance. The storyis not really about whether the characters achieve their goals, though it does have a "happy ending" whose very unlikelihood undercuts how seriously we should take it. The book instead is about how the people in it cope with moral challenges.


James Tynen is a former journalist. He lives in Cary, North Carolina, with his wife, Marnie. They are parishioners at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in nearby Apex.

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