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.

more on literature from the online archives

35.6—Nov/Dec 2022

To Is or Not To Is

on E-Prime by J. Douglas Johnson

30.4—July/Aug 2017

Soul Comforter

on Emily Dickinson & the Source of Our Hope by Josh Mayo

32.2—March/April 2019

The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation by Joshua Hren

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more from the online archives

30.3—May/June 2017

Not Merely Islam

C. S. Lewis Assesses the Religion of Mohammed by Jacob Fareed Imam

32.2—March/April 2019

The Boy Genius

Finding Him Again Through the Patriarchal Group by Anthony Esolen

29.3—May/June 2016

The Master's Voice

Our Choice Is Obedience or Jesus as Anti-Christ by Anthony Esolen