Inheritance and the plot of Mansfield Park

The text of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park does not say that the estate is entailed, but it probably is. It is certainly clear that Tom, the eldest son, will inherit the baronetcy from his father, and generally the land goes with the title. Most of the discussion of Tom’s inheritance occurs because his wild, careless behavior distresses his father, Sir Thomas Bertram, and he rather wishes that he could cut him out of the inheritance and give it into his son Edmund’s keeping since he can’t seem to control Tom. Sir Thomas is very upset because Tom is cheating his brother of his portion because he keeps incurring debts which Sir Thomas feels obligated to pay, and which he cannot afford.

Part of the tension of the story occurs because it is clear to everyone (and especially Mary Crawford) that Edmund would be a much better heir, but Mansfield Park concentrates much more on the importance of the relationships between the characters and how failures of upbringing by the responsible adults spoil the characters of the young people and cause a great deal of heartache and embarrassment to the family. These failures include the Price family, with their weak and whining mother, and the Bertrams with Sir Thomas’s stern but superficial attention to the behavior of his children, which is undone by the indiscriminate doting of their aunt, Mrs. Norris. The Crawfords, in spite of their personal charms, have serious moral weaknesses as a result of being brought up by their uncle, an irreligious woman hater. Fanny Price, the most quiet and insignificant heroine of Austen’s works, has not been spoiled by doting or the mind-twisting of a misogynist, and turns out to be a woman of great moral character and strength and provides a stark contrast with the selfishness of the Bertrams and the Crawfords.

Although Fanny has moral values that are very similar to Sir Thomas, she sees through the social façades of her cousins and the Crawfords as he does not and must suffer a great deal in her refusal of Henry Crawford. Even her cousin Edmund, whom she loves and who has ever been her best friend, thinks that Crawford would be an ideal husband for Fanny, he himself being blind to the deep flaws of both the Crawfords. When the eldest son, Tom, becomes seriously ill and is abandoned by his friends the Bertrams and Crawfords respond in ways that reveal their true characters. During his long recovery Tom turns around and becomes better suited to inherit the title and Sir Thomas, by the actions of his children, realizes the flaws in their characters. Thus, the plot revolves around the characters and their flaws rather than having problems forced upon them by the vagaries of inheritance.

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