Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Gender Stereotypes

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Set in 1800s Britain, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park at first glace seems to conform to the gender stereotypes of the day. Fanny Price is at first glance “timid and shy, and shrinking from notice”, she seems to conform to much of the negative gender stereotypes, with her central character development based around her relationships with other men, namely William, Edmund and Henry. However, on closer analysis, Austen explores through the characters of Fanny, Maria, Julia and mary, the importance of the education of young women and the importance of shaping their education to develop them beyond ornaments for men.

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Colleen Sheehan argued that Fanny is purposely a difficult character to emphasis with and Austen is refusing to give in to the simplistic stereotypes of women that would allow for an easy moral judgement of Fanny. Women were expected to have “a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing and modern language” as Austen outlines through the character of Caroline Bingley. However, it becomes clear that Fanny subverts this, her greatest strenghth lies in her moral convictions and her great interest in bettering herself through reading, not to attract a potential husband. Women were criticised if they were too interested in intellectual pursuits, called a ‘blue-stocking’. 

Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women were made “ornamental” through their education, it made them “pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue”. It is almost certain the Austen would have been aware of the writing of Wollstonecraft, and it could be argued that this can be seen through the characters of Maria and Julia, despite their initial view that they were intellectually superior to Fanny it becomes clear that their education was limited to a sex-oriented education, they desire husbands and little more. This can be seen as Austen exposing the defective education that plagued women, their poor education had given them a reliance of men to be their moral guide and economic provider. It is clear in Mansfield Park that while masculine power is initially introduced as superior, women are also able to exert control. Mrs Norris and Lady Bertram can be seen as relying on masculine power, Mrs Norries uses males codes

It becomes clear that Austen does not criticize that natural nature of shy women who feel unable to assert themselves but presents an alternate path that would give them authority and power: education. Fanny is able to use her natural traits of shyness to her advantage, she becomes a skilled observer and is an excellent judge of moral character, an attribute often ignored by the other characters. Despite her sensitive nature she is able to expand her mind beyond that of the other female characters who are rendered only ‘sex-seekers’ because of their unwillingness to seem learned. Fanny is seen to love poetry and biograohy and has a great understanding of Shakespear, Crabbe and Cowper. Some critics have argued [Thomas Edwards] that Fanny alone has a full understanding of other people, this can be attributed to her significant grasp on literature and her willingness to read and further her informal education. 

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