5/23- Primitive Times

In “Genesis”, right after the story of the Creation, there is the story of Adam and Eve and their family. It is a story often taken as the archetypal account of the human capacity for disobedience and murder. Then, later on, there is the story of Abraham and his descendants told with such density that it contains as much material as a series of novels. That saga carries a set of families into, among other things, encounters with the world civilization of the Egyptians and thereby sets the scene for the epic of liberation provided in “Exodus”. The redactors of “Genesis” fill the time between the richly detailed close ups of Adam and Eve and their family and of Abraham and his family with the more fanciful stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, those set amidst genealogies that, like movie fadeouts, show the passage of time.

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What's Wrong With Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is a contemporary Slovenian social thinker who is well versed in Hegelian Idealism, Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and film theory and, I am told, is very well thought of among young people. It is easy enough to see why he is appealing: his broad range of references, his graceful writing style, his willingness to bring in what would not seem apposite subject matters, but even there you have the beginning of a sense of why he is unreliable. He mentions “Gangnam style” which was a South Korean video and dance that made it into popular culture for a little while, but doesn’t have enough weight, less important than hoola hoops, for saying something about society. He reflects on the relation of North to South Korea, possibly because he had lectured in Seoul, when it would be more important to evaluate the meaning of capitalism in the United States, still its center, and so I am pressed to ask this question of his “Trouble in Paradise”, the title itself a reference to an Ernst Lubitsch film: what does he mean, really, by capitalism, other than it is the opposite of what is not yet, which is true socialism? That Hegelian opposition will not do, and so let us tease out his definition by bypassing his fascination with the Hegelian trick of turning everything into a negation or a negation of a negation, which is a philosophical parlor trick that doesn’t mean anything at all. Zizek says, with glee, that capitalism is a system which has two negatives: those in the surplus labor pool, who can’t get jobs, and those in the pool of educated persons who do not think they need jobs, and so capitalism includes both those it needs to keep the price of labor down, and those who it creates who seem surplus to the economy as a whole. All Zizek is saying in this formulation is that everything that happens in capitalism is a product of capitalism and so part of what is a combined mind set and social structure which does not have mechanisms which are either more or less essential. That holistic approach does not do justice to the complexity of what we know to be capitalism, where levels of taxation and central planning differ in, let us say, the United States and Sweden.

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Sargent's Story Pictures

John Singer Sargent is best known, of course, for his portraits of pretty society women in fancy gowns. Sargent does not use any symbolism in his painting. That would mean one image stands in place of another image or idea as when a dove represents The Holy Ghost. But, for Sargent, an orange sash is only an orange sash. So how does Sargent catch the intellectual interest of his audience without symbols? He does so by turning these hired portraits into story paintings, which means that his audience is invited to tell stories about them, a story being a narrative that gets from one place to another and has some suspense about what will come next. These stories are there in the pictures but waiting to be found, the viewer the one that has to conjure them up, though the clues for doing so have been supplied by the artist in the way he poses or dresses his subjects.

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4/23- Noah the Technologist

Noah was a good enough engineer, whether he got the plans from God or dreamed them up himself under the inspiration of God, to correctly execute these very ambitious plans. The plans are spelled out in detail. The ark is to have three levels. It is to be caulked both inside and outside. It is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. The dimensions of the ark are given so distinctly that they serve the literary purpose, of course, of concretizing the description and so make it as if it happened. But this is an interesting set of descriptors. “Genesis” could have said large or very large or as tall as a cedar of Lebanon or some other metaphor for size. “Genesis” does tend to exaggerate when it gives particular numbers, as when it gives the ages of the generations between Adam and Noah. That makes the story legendary: an exaggeration of what might have happened in the past rather than treating the past as having a very different set of processes than does the present, which is what happens when a mythology is created. There seems to be a different reason for concretizing here in the Noah story.

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Democracy and Genre Painting

Genre painting is the name given to a genre of painting that flourished, among other places and other times, in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. Genre painting in America portrayed the informal social life of a supposedly still unsophisticated  and largely rural America, this movement ending entirely with Winslow Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” (1872), that painting of boys at school recess that is perhaps better known today for its 3D effect of having its participants look as if they are on the verge of breaking out of the frame. These American genre paintings portray people grooming and selling horses, dancing, white people mixing with African Americans, and much else that could be considered informative about what life was like back then if one could trust inferences that are made from an art form, whether that is literature or painting, about what is really going on in the social life of the times. The art historian Elizabeth Johns makes such an attempt with regard to American genre painting and concludes that the paintings present a number of types so as to take a condescending and humorous view of their subject matter and are therefore not to be trusted as a serious set of pictures about the way things were because the pictures are designed to please the city swells who commissioned them. I disagree. I think it is possible, if one is careful, to draw inferences about reality from what might indeed have been painted as fanciful or stylized presentations of the life of the times. More particularly, the pictures, or at least some of them, tell the story of the emergence of democracy in the United States, a subject that historians of the time find crucial but where there is not enough of a documentary trail to explain how that remarkable event took place, something that did not arrive in Great Britain until the Reform Bill of 1886, some fifty year later.

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Cultural Mutation

Cultural mutation is a way to understand what is happening in a number of politically charged issues from race relations to foreign policy even though social scientists do not usually treat culture as something subject to spontaneous or creative change. Culture is usually regarded by anthropologists as the continuing way of life of a people, embracing customs, laws and beliefs, and so very stable and self-perpetuating and arising for unknown reasons, while sociologists emphasize the way culture reinforces the social structure that exists because it is transmitted by institutions that are answerable to the structure, as when television transmits what its advertisers will approve of, social media  a maverick in that there opinions percolate up from the people, and there is an understandable reaction by which government and other institutions of culture, such as the press, want to see the social media controlled so that they do not promulgate unpopular opinions. Culture is also taken to be a bridge or the medium through which change takes place in that culture diffuses innovations across a population, as when it spreads knowledge of vaccination, even though it is not responsible for original ideas. These theories are contrary to the perspective of humanists, which sees culture as the source of new ideas, whether in science, as when Darwin and Newton invent new perspectives because of their own ruminations while building on precedent thinkers, Darwin a mutation on Malthus and Lyell, while Newton was contemplating Copernicus and Galileo-- and vaccination was, after all, invented by a particular doctor in England on the basis of his observation of cows and the lack of smallpox among cow maids. Ingenuity and insight count. The humanist perspective can be applied to current events.

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3/23- Noah and God

 The redactors of “Genesis” were concerned with the development of technology, something that is immediately experienced, pervasive, and stands out from the natural world as a human artifact that confounds otherwise ordinary senses of scale and distance. That is true of even the creation fable that leads off “Genesis”. The creation fable does not offer creation done instantly by a powerful god nor does it relate a story of conflicts between gods that would motivate a god to create the world. Rather, as was suggested previously, it offers the set of processes that have to be performed in a particular sequence whereby the natural world, as humankind would know it, might become established.  What is more fundamental comes earlier in the sequence. The separation between night and day had to proceed the separation of the water from the land and that had to proceed before the animals could be created. God stepped back after each day’s labor to note his accomplishment. So He made the heavens and the earth rather than simply called them into being. Joseph, at the other end of “Genesis”, offers the social technology whereby the results of a famine can be avoided. That, on a more mundane level, is also a story of how to get from here to there, the creation of an agricultural surplus a process and not simply an intrusion.

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Campaign Rhetoric

The conventional wisdom is that political parties try to correct the mistakes they have made the last time or two around. So the Democrats didn’t want to nominate another clearly Liberal and Northern candidate after Mondale and Dukakis were defeated and so turned to Bill Clinton, a Southern Centrist who might pick up some of the states that had gone to Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia. And so the Republicans, in 2020, will alter their primary structure so as not to let the nomination go to a crazy, by then having been saved by Robert Mueller from having to renominate Trump. Democrats, for their part, are going to look for a candidate with a little more personal oomph than they got from Hillary Clinton, who they blame for having lost the race, though we still do not know whether that was the result of of Comey or Russian interference. Remember that her margin over Trump went up after each of the three presidential debates. Those who tuned in knew who was and who wasn’t Presidential.

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The Limitations of Painting

One of the things that made Sargent a great painter was that he appreciated the limitations of painting. At least for two hundred years before he did his work, painting had not carried philosophical messages or meanings encoded in symbols but rather did what it was capable of doing, which is to show what things look like. Sargent has no symbolism, no iconography, only what people, particularly, look like in their faces and in how they dress and in their presentation. What Sargent gets from accepting that limitation is an attention to detail that allows him to pick up the telling detail that gives a picture drama even if not anything that could be called meaning.

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2/23- Adam and Eve

The creation of woman should not be seen as an afterthought by a God who had previously provided each of his animals with a mate but overlooked doing it for Adam. God may have thought that Adam was a special enough creation, meant to rule over the rest of it, and so he did not need a mate. But either God changed his mind about that or always knew that he would make a special creation later. Woman was a special creation so as to emphasize that in the actual world the relation between man and woman is not like it is with the pairings of the other animals; some special kind of creation was required. Eve was as close to Adam as his own rib. As a legend might, the story of Eve’s creation suggests that woman has thereafter an ambiguous relation to man: part of him, descended from him, and yet a companion to him, and so clearly something different from what happens with some other created species no matter how much it might occur to a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve that the two sexes had different natures. We can see this more clearly if we consider the type of literary undertaking the story of the Garden of Eden is.

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Tissot's "Hide and Seek"


James Tissot was a French painter who moved to England after the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1870, and returned to Paris some ten years later. During his career, he was both prolific and well paid. He made his name as a society painter, portraying fashionable women in good clothes and in appropriate settings. Later in life,Tissot devoted himself to Biblical paintings which are noteworthy for the sculpture-like rendering of Biblical figures, though the emotions of grief or piety that accompany them seem somewhat cliched. There is, however, one picture of his, “Hide and Seek”, created in 1877, that is very different from either of his two major periods, and it stands out as worthy of attention, and makes Tissot one of those artists that produces just a few memorable paintings rather than an artist who keeps producing them throughout the course of a career. For one moment, inspiration caught up with talent.

“Hide and Seek” is set in a large living room. On the right there is a door which opens onto a garden, but this is not a picture of the outdoors as seen from the indoors. Another widow with a view of the outside has a white window shade drawn down on it so that the outside is not visible, which helps the viewer return to the interior of the room as the painting’s subject matter. The room is furnished in Victorian style: overstuffed sofas, tables, ornamented carpets, all set far away from one another so that the room does not seem at all cramped while remaining quite homey. Critics have emphasized that this was a time in his life when Tissot was quite happy, having settled down with the mistress who gave him a son. She may be the person who is leisurely occupying a sofa with her feet up, reading a newspaper, the moment a sad one because she would die within a few years. So this is a bourgeois domestic idyll and so to be savored for how charming and pleasant bourgeois life can be.

There is more to the picture, though, and it refers to a paradox of bourgeois life not easily fathomed. There are four children in the picture, all similar and cherub like. The one at the center  and the main focus of the picture is sitting on the floor and looking at a ball that is a bit removed from her, it also a strategic object in the painting. Why is she looking so carefully at the ball? This, the grown woman neglects to do so, perhaps because it is only a toy there for the amusement of the children. But there is something about the ball that perhaps only children, or the naive, or else the very perceptive, will notice. The ball is geometrically round and it is unadorned. That is different from the furniture, which is plushly upholstered and has numerous cushions, and from the rugs, which have elaborate floral designs. The starkness of the ball makes it something from another world. It is a geometric form not in the abstract, as in a geometry textbook, but actualized as a concrete thing out of keeping with its surroundings, and so is a symbol as well as a representation of what is ultimate and universal in the midst of the everchanging. The girl notices this about the ball the people around her do not. The ball serves as a critique of the pleasures and comforts of the bourgeois world, which will inevitably fade, while what the ball is and represents will not fade, and yet, ironically, the ball is just a plaything on the floor, however much it takes over the picture, that now focussed on its right hand lower quadrant where the ball lies. The ball as an abstract and yet present object, a part of the natural rather than the socially created world because it is a part of geometry which rules, in its way, aside from what people do, is therefore a challenge to the world in which the child is immersed, and the child knows that, and the problem set up by the painting is what the child as well as the viewer will make of that.

The ball constitutes such a challenge because it is so different from the clutter of ostentatious decoration that dominates the Victorian Age and which serves to remove civilization from its underpinnings in reality. In the Victorian era, civilization is understood as an imposition upon nature, and human society a construction that keeps people from being, as an image of the age that endures has it, in a constant evolutionary struggle where the strong defeat the weak. Society is a product of history and takes on its own representations that are not obliged to or reflective of the pre-social or primitive social forces that may underlie them. That is what makes society so comfortable and comforting. To do this, everything from architecture to household furnishings to dress indicate an artificiality that contrasts with the natural and even goes so far as to appropriate what might seem to be the natural to its own purposes, as when flowers are adopted to decorate rugs and so become part of human life rather than natural life.

The ball as an abstract object and yet a real object is an image that could not be used for much longer as an image of the universal inhabiting the historical world. In the  Eighties, Lewis Carroll introduces a wonderland where the laws of logic stand out in high relief. Alice becomes smaller and then bigger contrary to physical law; the Cheshire Cat ceases to take up space, in violation of biological law; and, to top it off, the Queen demands a verdict before a trial, which is a violation of social law. And after that would come Freud’s cluttered office, opulent and busy in the Victorian style, but with the addition of statues and artifacts from primitive societies to add credence to the idea that there are levels of consciousness and experience that go beyond and are coexistent with the normality of bourgeois life. Nor will it be long before geometrical shapes take over painting and architecture and room decoration, however much the rectangles of Sullivan office buildings still use decorative motifs. But Tissot is not yet in that period and so geometry is an intrusion into bourgeois life, which raises the question of why bourgeois life was so committed to plush and over-elaborate decoration.

But this one picture should not lead to neglecting the paintings on which Tissot’s fame was based. Tissot’s portraits are not bad even though they never take a grip on the viewer the way that the portraits of John Singer Sargent do, whether that is because Tissot does not have Sargent’s mastery of color or because Tissot’s faces are too realistic and so do not have the mystery and individuality that Sargent’s do, or because they look too much alike, with pert noses and small lips, his women dressed more often than not in white, or simply because current taste for some reason does not favor him. But a more limited case can be made for them. Tissot sets his portraits in interesting places: outdoors, in parks, in living rooms, on ships, and so they constituted a record of what fashionable (and not so fashionable) women did with their time. In some cases, the clothes of the women he portrays are carefully represented and complex and their faces are distinctive. Moreover, the women are shown to be poised, comfortable in themselves, and so a match for the stagey men who accompany them. That provides evidence that should unsettle the view that the women of the Victorian Age are prim and oppressed. They seem very much in command of their surroundings even if they do not have seats in Parliament.


Tissot’s “Richmond Bridge”, for example, shows a self-possessed pretty lady, accompanied by an admirer, posed in an interesting place, near a river (the Thames) with an arched bridge, and wearing an elaborate plaid dress. Her face is fuller than it is in many Tissot portraits, and she seems preoccupied, as if her companion cannot keep her interest, something also indicated by his showboat moustache and cane, which make him something of a cliche gallant. So there is a story here, though the high point of the painting is her plaid dress, closely hugging her body, its material seeming thin though elegantly cut and so making a fashion statement even if the painting deliberately underplays that.

Then there is Tissot’s “Waiting for the Ferry” or, as it is sometimes called “the Art of Waiting”, where an equally formidable woman is waiting, slouched over in a chair, for the time to move on, and also has a companion who can not stop looking at her but whom she does not acknowledge. The background of buildings leaning over or near the river are interesting for their shapes and the bustle of activity within and near them, their white and grey textures and the life within them made more interesting by the intervention of horizontal and vertical lines between the buildings and the woman who is dressed, this time appropriately, in an unornamented white that becomes glamorous because it is so well cut. The viewer is left wanting to see more rather than less of the background, while the posed young woman challenges the background for the viewer’s interest, the viewer wondering whether she is bored rather than merely self-possessed, and how her personality plays into its physical context. She too has a male companion who is just an ornament.

Then there is Tissot’s “Ball on Board” where, indeed, the whiteness of the gowns seems overdone even as the picture portrays how social occasions such as this shipboard party go. One interest a modern viewer takes is in the social fact that women are coming on board where they are not ordinarily welcome, and the deeper question of how it is women of the period would have felt about having to be so elaborately dressed even if they were just getting on a ship where more comfortable clothes would seem appropriate. The women do not seem diminished by their elaborate “uniforms”, anymore than contemporary women are diminished by dressing in short skirts and long legs when going to the office. So there is something about how dress sets off women whatever the era of social enlightenment in which they live.

It is difficult not to find something of interest in portraits of woman. This fascination with how women look, women looked at and men doing the looking, has been going on at least since Pompeii, and is intensified in Christian art, which is so preoccupied with the Virgin Mary. This preoccupation with portraits of women rather than of men reaches its highpoint, perhaps, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, with the society portraitists, though we would be remiss not to notice that the layouts in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein ads are as elaborate as they are in a Tissot painting. The way Tissot catches hold of the male interest in staring at women is therefore of significance even though, as I say, his major claim on us is as someone who caught onto something metaphysical about Victorian life.

1/23- The Creation Fable

This is the first of a twenty-three part series on the Bible. The general theme is that the Bible is for the most part in the vanguard of those who want to secularize history. That means that the authors of the Old Testament, and even of the New, are interested in dispensing with mythology, reducing the number of supernatural interventions in history, and moving the center of religious concern away from magical moments to moral questions.

The creation story in “Genesis” is a far more modern thing than it is usually credited with being  It is a kind of philosophical presentation and so very different from mythology which, as Ovid, that great student of mythology, noted, there are always biological transformations of things even while the gods remain subject to the forces of nature and the raging of human passions. Narcissus becomes his image but only symbolically, and not all narcissists become their images, which is what happens in a fable. The creation story is best explained as a fable, which is a story that explain a set of circumstances that do not seem to be created but which somehow were at a point in time and have become part of nature. Tigers have stripes and the Red Man got baked right, neither too much or too little.. Fables suggest that there is a history for what seems natural, a sometimes serious, sometimes fey attempt to make explicable what seems not to need explanation or else to make explicable something which seems paradoxical: how something could come into existence when it already had to be there.

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The Upside of the Shutdown

Optimist that I am, let’s look at the upside of the government shutdown. Sure, eight hundred thousand government workers (not all Democrats) are without a paycheck, and there are the additional thousands who are lunch counter operators and dry cleaners who will never be compensated for their lost revenue. But the important point is that the border wall issue is one without content. Republicans fudge the difference between a border wall and border security because only political people think the wall is needed and Trump thinks so only because he became entranced with the term during the campaign. Trump is also the hands down worst deal maker of all time. He could have gotten twenty five billion for his wall last year in exchange for a bill guaranteeing the Dreamers a path to citizenship. He agreed to the deal when it was presented to him by the leading Democrats and Republicans but reneged on it after Stephen Miller got his ear and suggested the deal also include changes in general immigration laws so as to bar what they call chain immigration, which means uniting families, such as, for example, Melania’s family, brought over under those terms to the United States, as well as getting rid of a lottery for some immigrants. Miller also wants to cut the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States. So we are left with Trump now shutting down the government to get a fraction of what he could have gotten if he had really thought the border wall were a policy issue, which he now claims, rather than a campaign slogan.

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9/9: Jane Austen's Critique of Kant


Lest the message of what might have been is lost on the reader of “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen steps forward as she opens the novel’s last chapter to give in a form even more terse than the rapid fire narrative of the events of the prior few months the denouement of her story. Far from drawing a moral message of how everything is resolved for better or worse, how people pair off as nature intended, with Fanny getting the Edmund she rightfully deserves, she shows that Fanny gets Edmund because that is all that she deserves, in the sense of a person who she is prepared to deal with and who is prepared to deal with her on the terms of the claustrophobic life of Mansfield Park now doubly enclosed by the moral Methodism which Mary quite properly characterizes as Edmund’s. It is not just that both Edmund and Fanny were quite right in thinking that they could not bear the constant sensations of dealing with the candor and overt feeling of their previously intendeds. It is also that they have each been more true, all along, to their own feelings of self respect which they see mirrored in one another than they have in the interests of the family at all.

To the reader’s surprise, there is no recrimination by the family for the role Fanny played, largely through inaction, in bringing about the scandal in the family. To the contrary, she seems all the more indispensable to Mrs. Bertram, and seems to Sir Thomas Bertram to have been morally correct in her reading of Henry, though she has her own silent misgivings about whether or not she would have not eventually accepted him if he had not been so foolish as to fall again, at least temporarily, for his prior love. Mary was quite right in thinking that a little encouragement by Fanny might well have saved him from following his impulses. Moreover, the family, in its morally diminished state, with Maria dishonored and Julia badly married, turns to Fanny as a reminder of what they themselves once were, an icon of country respectability, which she has become more than they ever were. And so her eventual marriage to Edmund, which had been unthinkable because of her rank, and because she was sisterly to him, becomes thinkable as the emphasis is placed on her as a distant relative who has risen in manners well enough to give substance to the feeling that the family is respectable once again, though she brings nothing else to the marriage.

Mrs. Norris, who had always served as the family Cassandra, reminding them at the very beginning that this is the way things might turn out, finds herself the subject of Sir Thomas’s disapproval, perhaps because she is a reminder of the extent to which the little girl who was taken out of charity to serve as a high level companion to his wife, has become the dominant figure in the family, replaced his own daughters in his favor, which seems particularly unnatural and uncalled for. Mrs. Norris, knowing that her place is no longer welcome, since in the key test of the Rushfords and the Crawfords she had seemed to judge badly, has little choice but to acknowledge her failure and move out, leaving the field not to Fanny who has after all moved far beyond her and replaced Lady Bertram as the leading woman in the family, but to Sally, Fanny’s younger sister, who has now become the main companion to Lady Bertram. That defeat by two sisters must have been too much, though as usual Jane Austen does not describe the emotions that have overcome her at the prospect of Sally, but she does describe the statements Mrs. Norris makes about the inconsiderateness of the family to Maria, and those seem just. Mrs Norris goes off to live with Maria as two ladies alone, which is no great sacrifice to Mrs Norris, who gains a companion and who can live in a style appropriate to someone who has rage against an unjust world, just as Fanny would have lived with William, her brother, if the concatenation of circumstances had not worked out in her favor.

Mrs. Norris is thought badly for her candor in saying what Fanny had thought, which is that her acceptance of Henry Crawford would have averted the family scandal. The family is in no position to consider such possibilities, but in the tradition of Humean morality, feels such sentiments as its position now entitles it to, which is to think well of Fanny. This fact finally secures Fanny's position, since it is no longer a matter of mere sentiment, of charity un-buttressed by self-interest.

Sir Thomas has no good explanation to give for the series of family disasters. He turns to the usual set of banalities that are trotted out by parents and experts whenever children of any social class go bad. He says he was too permissive with daughters who had been flattered by Mrs. Norris, as if she had raised them, but who is now the repository of all blame. Fanny had turned out well because of her adversity. This is so lame as to be comic, since Fanny's mistreatment by Mrs. Norris had not bothered him so much before then that he had put a general stop to it, however benevolent he was in lightening her disapproval of Fanny by granting individual acts of mercy and graciousness. Who would have needed the mercy of this beneficent God if God had not established a cruel world to begin with? The reader is also aware that the benefit of Mrs. Norris’ attentions had driven Fanny even more deeply into herself, made her a more clever version of Mrs. Norris, who knew better than to speak out of turn, and accounted in part for her inability to respond to Mr. Crawford, because she did not feel she could possibly deserve such attentions, given her condition and defects, all of which had been made abundantly clear by Mrs. Norris.

So Lionel Trilling is correct to say that the ending of “Mansfield Park” does not leave us feeling good, even though it ends with the conventional marriage of erstwhile hero and heroine and their entering into the life they desired. The ending is not satisfying, however, not because our hero and heroine are such smug creatures, but because the novel never lets the reader forget that any number of other possible endings might have taken place, and that this particular ending is not so perfect, for it represents the fact that Fanny and Edmund are limited in their prospects, settled for what was comfortable rather than what might have challenged their souls. This is less upsetting in the case of Edmund, who was never very perceptive, once he got interested in women, and who seems to have the character of a clergyman, which he was gracious enough to accept without complaining, once he had no choice but to become one, just as Fanny has once silently accepted the fact that she would probably never consummate her love for Edmund. It is more unsettling when applied to Fanny, who after all had potential, had made herself into a creature of the gentry class, but could never force herself to brave it into London or polished society.

Fanny had done more than she could have been expected to do. She was a girl who was clever and deferential, who turned her reading and her brain into a way of moving up significantly in social class partly because she had no choice but to succeed or fail, to live up to the correct manners required of her since the day she arrived at Mansfield Park or else risk being shipped back if she should lose favor. She had to make the manners part of herself more than the others did because she was so dependant upon them, and so they took over her being in a particularly remorseless way, which made her constitutionally incapable of taking on the next leap and transforming her personality into one that could have managed the moral life of the London set, though there is no reason to think it any way worse than that of the men in the country set, who simply disappear for long periods to go hunting, drinking and wenching at a distance rather than close to home. It is, moreover, understandable that having partially gained acceptance at Mansfield Park, though by no means secured it, she would not want to take a risk with her new found selfhood to remake herself yet another time. She was too old for that. Jane Austen's protagonist is therefore only heroic to an extent, to the point absolutely required by her condition, and since her condition is so precarious, and has been so for so long, she cannot be expected to drain herself of her remaining psychological resources by daring again to remake herself. That would be foolhardy, even if the reader would like to believe his heroine could go on forever outwitting the world and conquering ever upwards. Trilling finds society oppressive because it isn't pure possibility, but has some resilience of its own, giving under concentrated pressure but not always yielding. Jane Austen, to the contrary, seems to think Fanny's achievement remarkable enough without requiring her to toss it all away to become someone who might not be able to cope with a husband’s philandering.

An even more deflating residue of the novel, however, is its depiction of the nature of moral life as that is successively redefined by the novel. Morality as generalized principle comes to replace a calculus of self interest. The last chapter of the novel suggests that generalized principle is not enough because the world gets turned so topsy turvy that it is not clear whether a generalized principle is a good enough guide to self interest. At the end, it seems that Fanny has been good because she has been Kantian. She has embraced principle for its own sake. She acts correctly regardless of consequence, and proves to impress the rest of the world with her moral rectitude. Morality is her power and her strength.

But this is a very flawed version of Kant. Fanny’s is still what Kant would call a prudential morality in that it is adopted for want of any better way to act. A person acts morally only because whatever calculus one makes may not work out. This level of ignorance makes it incumbent to act morally in the first place because if things go wrong then there is the satisfaction, at least, of having acted properly. This is appropriate in a topsy turvy world, but it is not what Kant meant when he said that moral action should be taken for the love of acting morally not for the sake of being known to oneself, much less to others, as a person who acts morally. Fanny may come to learn to be moral as well as to want to be moral, just as Pascal suggests that practice may lead to belief, but she is not there yet, and it is not at all clear that that would be such a good thing. In a prescient critique based on Methodism of what would become elaborated as Kantian ethics, Jane Austen notes the moral deficiency of this moral stance. It involves an inturning of the self, a loneliness which no communication can breech, for only in the self is it known whether an action was taken for the right reasons. Kant may want to turn humankind into a set of moral monads, each person operating as if they were totally independent in the world, and only fortuitously conjoining their actions, or doing so on the basis of high seriousness, rather than on the basis of the give and take of life, but Austen sees this as a sacrifice which Edmund, but more especially Fanny, makes. Fanny's strongest moral trait is her reticence, her unwillingness to speak what is unbecoming even to herself, and that means that her life is necessarily filled with unvoiced defeats and even tragedies and even successes. She cannot gloat, but neither can she savor; she cannot whine and browbeat, but neither can she express or seek the need for compassion. This removal from human life has made her triumphant, but more largely speaking, it is what she is.

In short, the critique of Kantian morality is that it removes people from people, supplies them with only, perhaps, their own heart to consult, and even that at considerable risk. Kantianism is thence not a triumph of reason but a retreat into the Romanticism that is on the rise in the world: a paean to emotion that comes from the fact that people have become self-enclosed and therefore preoccupied with self rather than because they have been liberated into new kinds of experience. Jane Austen, who lives on the cusp between Classicism and Romanticism, is not unmindful of the kind of liberation Romanticism supplies. After all, her own self is turned to the energies of art and the position of the observer, but she does not contemplate, here at least, the position of the heroic poet who acts, the Byronic figure, but considers instead, how much is given up by looking at the multifaceted self and not at the multifaceted social reality it reflects, for that is to take a self out of the action, out of an engagement with life, and means betraying the self. Fanny's final tragedy has nothing to do with whether she marries Edmund or not. It has to do with the creation of a self other than the Classical one, and the ambiguities that are resident in such a self.

What accounts for Fanny's rise in the world from a poor relation to the new daughter in the family who will soon be courted by a highly eligible bachelor, and whom Sir Thomas has come to treat as his own daughter, and whom he likes and respects more than his own daughters? The suspense of the novel is that Fanny seems sooner or later to be headed for a fall, either through circumstances, which would make it unfortunate, through the venality of others, which would make it melodramatic, or through her own character, which would make it tragic.

All of these possibilities are available. Fanny is both headstrong and remote, and so could miss an opportunity available to her, or blurt out the well merited grievances she has piled up against the family, and suffer the consequences of being ungrateful to those who think there is no end to the gratitude she should feel towards them. She might not be able to withstand the onslaughts of Mrs. Norris, who would do anything to turn something Fanny does against her, whether it were deserved or not; or Lady Bertram, who is so suggestible and weak that someone could turn her against Fanny, or might manage to do so herself if for some reason she took it in her head that Fanny had been insufficiently attentive; or the sisters, who have no great use for Fanny if she should become of sufficient importance to be noticed by them as something other than a dependant.  

External events rather than family intrigue could also lead to Fanny's downfall. A turn in the family's fortunes, or a rearrangement of the family so that Lady Bertram would have to, let us say, take on Mrs. Norris as a permanent lady in waiting, or the need to pack off Fanny to serve that role for one of the sisters, would also lead to a reduction of Fanny from her recently elevated position to her "permanent" rank as a poor dependant. In any of those circumstances, Fanny might be turned against herself, reinterpreted herself as ungrateful, and so no longer secure in her insecure position.

None of these disasters come to pass even though the reader has been waiting patiently and deliciously for Jane Austen to invent a particularly clever and unexpected way for Fanny to fall, the novel serving as a kind of mystery story which provides clues but not the conclusion not to who done it but to how Fanny was done in. So the reader begins halfway through the novel to reread it for the reasons Fanny leads such a charmed life.

Fanny works her way into the good graces of the family because, first of all, they are not so grand as they make out. Sir Thomas had married considerably beneath him, for sentiment rather than good sense. He has a wife who needs constant attendance and is not much good for anything. But for her brief conquest, she might well have fared no better than her sister in Portsmouth who also married for love, but to less advantage. The work of Mr. Bertram’s' life seems to be to try to raise the sights of his wife and her relatives, to reach below him and provide civility to his inferior relatives, perhaps because that is the best such a soft hearted gentleman can be expected to do. In that case, Fanny appeals to him as another case to work on, and of considerably better capacity than the other materials he has tried to form, and so not so out of keeping with the rest of his life, either what he is doing now, or what he chose to do years before-- though it is to his credit that he does not harbor bitterness about past decisions.

Fanny is herself up to the task of being remade because she is more master of language than anyone else at Mansfield Park. She says things in the way they should be said or does not say them at all. She is not given to the gaffes of the rest, and so it is no wonder that Mary Crawford picks her out for friendship as one who can be talked to as a sister. Fanny is tongue-tied when she is called upon by Henry to say something to him, because nothing that she could say would tie together her feelings and her situation, but no one else in the family could have spoken with such candor to Mary, telling her that her brother was not to be trusted because he was a flirt, declaring her real motives in a morally appropriate manner, and so earn from Mary a laugh and a remark that acknowledge the truth of what she has said.

For this and other reasons, Mary takes Fanny to be the sort of person who could indeed rise up not only to the social class of the minor country gentry, but to the stature of the more worldly London families, who have their connections in the Admiralty and the other institutions that control English life, which is all the more reason why Mary is confused that Fanny would not take the opportunity to marry her brother, but seems instead to prefer the morality of country respectability, to which she and her brother have condescended with a liberality at once real and affected, as was the case with many Eighteenth Century city people who have nostalgia for what they see as an antiquated and disappearing but charming manner of life. Such a life is attractive to the Crawfords because it is a non-threatening alternative to their own insecure positions as the Fanny like relatives of a more distinguished family patron. They do not know that Fanny is shocked rather than sympathetic to their own view of the servility imposed upon distant relatives by the heads of families. They do not know that she is self-limiting and that therefore her failure to move up in society as far as she might could be considered tragic, our third possibility for explaining her fate, when it is, instead, settling for what she wants, and so not tragic at all, Jane Austen, among her other accomplishments in this novel, supplying an answer to the idea, which will become everywhere obvious in the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Century, that you are only satisfied if you go as high as you can. Jane Austen turns that wisdom on its head by declaring that people go only as far as they want to, and there are no end of sociological studies which justify the idea by showing that people do not go so much from the bottom to the top of the social ladder as move up one or two rungs in the course of their lives. Jane Austen explains why.

The Double Action of Stories

What makes a story a story rather than just a sequence of sentences is that all stories engage in a double action. Every sentence in a story, even a description of the weather that provides the atmosphere surrounding its action, does two things: it tells the reader of something that hadn’t happened before and at the same time provides information to the reader about how to understand what is to later unfold or has previously occurred. You learn of Macbeth’s forebodings of a promising future, which is an event in the play, and you are forewarned about how to greet further developments. The reader or viewer’s mind is provoked to cast ahead because each event is a revelation as well as something that just happened. That is why stories are so magical. They violate the strictures of time by allowing those who hear it to cast back and forth in the story as if the audience were a god.

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8/9: Fanny Price at Portsmouth

Portsmouth Harbour

Portsmouth Harbour

Fanny Price is diffident about life at Portsmouth once she returns there. Jane Austen uses the occasion to reveal the nature of the character that had not been so completely revealed beforehand, perhaps because it would have been too unappealing to stay with, but now that the reader is so much invested in Fanny Price, Jane Austen can show just how singular that character is as well as how Fanny is, like most people, both possessed of insight and limited in her sense of what she wants her life to be like and how she is with other people.

Fanny finds her home at Portsmouth physically uncomfortable, and yet also recognizes the ways in which her family is like the family at Mansfield Park even if lacking their social graces. That recognition forces the reader of the novel to appreciate that morality is an individual characteristic and not just a social one, even if social graces are collectively a morality as well as an improved form of life because those graces do in fact make people more considerate of one another even if her mother is not particularly considerate. Her mother thinks that Mrs. Bertram must worry over the servant problem because that is her own problem of household management, while the truth of the matter is that Mrs. Bertram doesn't worry about the servants at all, because the servants do a better job on their own, since they are better selected and better paid, and because others in the family worry about them. Having servants is not a key to respectability at Mansfield Park. The family that owns it takes that for granted so that they can worry about other things that will establish themselves as of the sort of people they think they should be. But, on a personal level, Mrs. Bertram is not that much better than Fanny's mother. She may be kinder, but that is because she has time to be kinder, and her kindness means allowing Fanny to serve as a high level serving maid in recompense for her keep, as an expression of her gratitude. Mrs. Bertram is, if anything, more indolent than Mrs. Price, and is allowed to be so by her more comfortable social arrangements

But all of this Fanny could take in. What Fanny does not notice about herself is her indifference to her own family, which Jane Austen presents as the family's indifference to her. It is true that they do not present a very lavish table for her when she arrives, but then they have worked harder at doing something for her arrival than the Bertrams did for her when she arrived at Mansfield Park. And she expects them to treat her as a lady from Mansfield Park. But instead, her father settles in with his borrowed newspaper after the family has been more preoccupied with the concerns of William’s life than with what has happened in her’s, which is not surprising since he, after all, had been living with them, and his prompt arrival at his ship is something of an emergency. There is also the sense, however, that Fanny was always like this, that as a child she had also been aloof and removed, that she had occupied herself with her reading and separating herself from the rest of the family by going off to her little room in the same way she went off to her bigger room in Mansfield Park.

Susan, her sister, is the only person in the family in whom she takes an interest. She regales her with stories of Mansfield Park, recreating as best she can the world she inhabited in Mansfield Park, in her imagination, and living as she had when she was there. It is no wonder that the family seems to have little use for her as she lords it over them with her better ways. More important is that she has little feeling for them, makes little attempt to engage them or to appreciate them on their own level. She may reject Crawford and settle down with William in a brother and sister cottage, but she has no intention of either returning to Portsmouth as a way of life, or for that matter engaging in the London life of Henry Crawford, even if she is tempted to do so. Her success to this point has been created out of her firmness, apparent docility, and her ability to be alone and reserved, to gain life from her books and her general principles, and that is the way she intends to be.

That explains her response to Tom Bertram’s illness. She does not know whether to take an active role and request to be sent for so that she can return to Mansfield Park and comfort the family in its time of need. That would seem to be in her self interest as well as an expression of any feeling she has for the family. But she is remarkably reserved, and simply awaits news of what to do, appearing to modestly resist any temptation there is to step forward, lest it be construed as presumptuous, when in fact she has no great desire to express her feeling to anyone, nor such great regard for Tom that she feels obliged to his family to act as if she were properly a member of the family.

But since she does not know what would be appropriate in the matter, she terms her decision not to arrange for transportation back to Mansfield Park as allowing Sir Thomas Bertram to decide when he has need for her, as if she were indeed more a servant than a member of the family. This is the same principle she followed in the case of the play production, when she hesitated as long as possible and made no declaration of what should be done other than her own withdrawal from the activities. She did not feel it proper for her to take a role in deciding what to do, which was appropriate given her social circumstances at the time, but that is a cover, the reader can realize at this further state of the story, for her general passivity, her waiting for events to resolve her dilemmas, of both marriage and family obligations.

The idea of principle is therefore double edged. It means at first simply a generalization from experience about what to do under a set of circumstances, but it moves up into being a rule whereby one settles on what to do in circumstances which are ambiguous or unclear by making the empirical generalization serve as a matter of obligation. It appears to be like a moral rule, since it is what one does regardless of information, but it is still a scientific, utilitarian principle, because it is what one does as an application of past practice only because there is no information to clarify the situation. Morals are rules applied to limited information about self interest. This is a rather narrow and nasty understanding of non-utilitarian morality: it is inferior to utilitarian morality because it is merely a bad, rough calculation which will have to do, and yet it appears in the trappings of high moral language. And that is the way Fanny has conducted her entire life: she has used moral language because she has spend so much of her life in unfamiliar or only barely familiar settings that she has had to rely on general principles to give her a compass on how to behave. Categorical morality is the refuge of ignorance rather than the abandonment of self interest.

Tom’s illness seems to provide a way out of Fanny's overall dilemma. It is a deus ex machina which will resolve her problem, although not necessarily in a way she likes. It immediately occurs to the reader that should Tom die, Edmund will inherit Mansfield Park, and so be in a position to marry Mary, since his relative poverty is the only thing that makes Mary hesitate about a love match. That couples relation resolved, Fanny would have even more reason to accept Henry, for it would allow her to continue to live near Edmund, and persevere in the brother sister relationship that is one side of the ambiguous relationship she knows herself to have with Edmund, while having Henry as a perhaps unfaithful and absent and even possibly transformed husband who she could deal with as she pleased, since he would not be the center of her emotional life, unless she wanted to make him so. It would secure her future, allow her to move in any direction she wanted, while her present situation was fraught with danger because any of the options open to her-- continued association with Edmund, or even marriage with him, and the continued courting by Henry or even the good graces of the Bertrams, could be foreclosed by any number of events, including some simple insult she might pay the family inadvertently, since her connection to them is not legal but simply based on the favorable sentiments they have about her. Her situation is precarious, and Edmund's succession to Mansfield Park would move her in one direction.

Nor should such a possible resolution present a surprise to the reader, however unexpected the letter informing Fanny of Tom’s illness might be. The conventions of the Eighteenth Century novel, as well as the realities of Eighteenth Century life, remove characters from the scene through death all the time, or in some other way provide an external resolution, as when Tom Jones is found to be the illegitimate son but rightful heir of Squire Weston's sister.

But Jane Austen has already so well prepared the way for understanding that “Mansfield Park” is not a conventional novel in which all is made right in the world so that life is in accord with its natural scheme of inheritance and the social scale of being, so convinced has the reader become that people make the best they can of bad choices in which each choice has its appealing side, satisfying some self interest, even if no choice is a perfect one without problems, that the prospect of a deus ex machina comes as a disappointment from which one hopes Jane Austen will save us, which she does indeed do, but not before Fanny receives a letter from Mary which she finds proof positive of Mary's cynical and immoral nature because it is so candid about stating what is obvious about the change in Edmund's fortune.

The reader is less prepared to find Mary's letter so incriminating partly because she does no more than state what the reader has already been led to think about the matter. How could anyone deny Mary the right to have such thoughts? She would have been a fool not to see the possibilities, which are, after all, fully in accord with the morality of self interest which had been the hallmark of Mansfield. But Mary is so foolish as to state them, and to state them inelegantly, as a matter of personal greed, rather than as a matter of what the science of morality would dictate as appropriate under changed circumstances. First off, Mary, for all her graces, was not as clever as Fanny, and could hardly be expected to either find the right way to say something or decide to just say nothing at all. And, moreover, Mary had come to treat Fanny as a sister in the prospect of her becoming a sister-in-law, and so could confide in her more candidly than she would to someone else. After all, Fanny was at the moment confiding all sorts of things to Sally, who was her flesh and blood sister, but whom she had not seen for years and years. It may have been crude of Mary to say what she did, but Fanny is an unforgiving soul, especially of a woman who loves the man she loves.

But then another unexpected event enters the picture: the elopement of Maria with Henry. Again, Fanny remains in Portsmouth, passive, waiting for more information in correspondence from others rather than declaring herself or expressing concern or interest. Mary does not have Fanny to confide in, to perform the sisterly function that would be expected of someone else, but a role from which Fanny is exempt because she has for so long been the great stone face that she is expected to be someone on whom moral virtue is projected: what would she think were the right thing to do? Fanny is a kind of moral oracle who operates from afar, just as Sir Thomas had been, though not as well, from Antigua.

Instead, Mary confides in Edmund, who one would think would supply an attentive and sympathetic ear, since this is the woman he wishes to marry. Mary suggests that, proprieties aside, the interest of the combined families is to allow the couple to live together till they decide to marry. This is not an approval of the elopement but the common sense for which those at Mansfield Park are supposedly renowned. It would be far more a disaster for Maria to be disgraced permanently and for Henry to lose his marriage to Maria than for him to make an honest woman of Maria by becoming a reformed rake. If he were, after all, good enough to marry Fanny, then he certainly is good enough to marry Maria, who is now a fallen woman, and has shown poor judgment before.

Edmund greets this heartfelt confidence between a woman and the man who has expressed interest in marrying her by turning on her, by immediately interpreting this declaration of her’s as conclusive proof of her immorality. When he says as such, in no uncertain terms, she is clearly shocked, for she had been on the verge of accepting him, even though Tom's health had improved, and there would have been considerable sacrifice in the match for her. Her response is, quite correctly, to call him morally self-righteous, unwilling to consult normal moral concerns, and so she tells him to leave. When he does so, she hesitates and calls him back, but he is unwilling to return, which is the contempt he shows for a woman who is not only willing to face the fact of his poverty, but also swallow her pride so that she might marry a man she knows will never be candid with her.

The willingness of both Mary and Henry to marry their social inferiors requires explanation. Both of them, the reader has suspected and it now seems confirmed, are in as precarious a position as Fanny. They have been raised in a house not their own on the sufferance of people whose shortcoming they endure not from familial love but out of social necessity. They border themselves with the Grants for periods of long duration, in part out of what they declare is their sentimental attachment to the country, as well as because of their need to find someplace to live where they can be more than they are, and also out of a sincere admiration for what they see as the orderliness of life in Mansfield Park. But they have both been trained so long in their upbringing to a level of morality which is more candid and more acceptant of the vicissitudes of life that it is difficult for them to appreciate just how constricted are the moral concerns of the people at Mansfield, just how inhibited their language is. So while they are thought of as from a better class than those in Mansfield, and are perhaps therefore understandable as more sophisticated, this sophistication is not appreciated by the Mansfieldians when it has to do with anything of great consequence to them, and the Crawfords, for their part, think the good order of Mansfield does not mean that they cannot be candid when candor is required, as it is often enough in life. What seems eccentric about each party to the other becomes seen as essential to them in moments of crisis. This is a gap which is not easily breached.

Fanny had accepted just such condescension from the Mansfieldians. She had accepted that she needed to learn to behave in a different way than she had at Portsmouth, had accepted on faith that the manners of the richer were better than those of the poor, and yet neither she or Edmund would allow themselves to be tutored in the behavior of an even higher social class, but responded with a narrow mindedness that might have been expected of Mrs. Price. She had risen as far as she intended to in her vision of what a proper life amounts to. And so Fanny remains forever the Portsmouth girl who clings to her final prize, Edmund, because that is the only one she wanted. She was not taken in by wealth or manners, only by her own passions.


I used to think that sophisticated people were like the people who read or wrote for “The New Yorker”. They were insouciant under the worst of circumstances. I thought up a New Yorker cartoon, when I was a teenager, of a cocktail party where there was an atomic explosion in the background and one guest says “I think it's time for another Martini.” That is sophistication: coolness in the face of difficulties either social or existential. I was also impressed at the time by the ads in “The New Yorker”. They exposed me to products and poses I would never see in my working class neighborhood. These people were dressed to the nines and carried themselves as such. .

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7/9: Morals in "Mansfield Park"


Critics have gotten “Mansfield Park” wrong because they have read it as an Eighteenth Century novel whose purpose it is to illustrate moral virtue through the use of exemplary cases. “Tom Jones” raises this concern to enormous proportions because Fielding self-consciously invokes the idea of an epic to frame the comic adventures of his hero, which are nonetheless to be taken seriously because they show the working out of a hero's life, whether that is understood as a result of God's providence or coincidence, those adventures taking place in the domestic world of inheritance and marriage arrangements rather than in warfare or other more usual forms of heroism. Critics are constrained to find the moral universe of “Mansfield Park” unsettling because the high seriousness of the moral squabbling seems unrelieved by either irony about the project of making good marriages (though there is plenty enough dramatic and verbal irony throughout the novel) or because the harsh moral righteousness of the heroine, who seems to embody the moral message of the novel, seems to make her excessively loyal to propriety, just as Griselda, the heroine of Chaucer's exemplary tale about obedience, “The Clerk’s Tale”, seems also to carry a good thing too far, even if the reader can profit from her instruction.

Jane Austen might well have been pleased at such readings, for she is certainly doing her own turn on the Eighteenth Century novel, adopting its structure, plot lines, and tone, and does indeed suggest that the life of morality is not the easy one her predecessors portrayed, but rather, in fact, a life so grim that a reader might think to dispense with it entirely and, instead, take off with Mary Crawford on some romantic adventure, even if it came to no good end and had to be paid for the rest of one's life. That would indeed supply an opening to Romanticism, a transition from sentiments externally stimulated to feelings that well up from the consciousness.

Critics, however, in their penchant for telling a new story out of the story that is before them for analysis, the telling of a new story out of a given text, can fall far short of the mark in that the commentator proceeds only by doing violence to the text under consideration in that what is offered is not a new or additional reading of a text but a clearly faulty one, as that can be concluded by consulting the evidence of the text, even if the misreading has been so successful as to crowd out a more faithful reading of the text. Such is the case with Lionel Trilling, who became an influential figure in mid-Twentieth America because he had a powerful vision that informed his criticism. He stated his view most clearly in his essay “Meaning, Morals and the Novel”. A novel, more than other forms of literature, establishes a moral framework for understanding life because all major characters are on a moral quest to establish what they see as the right way of living onto the ongoing flow of history, as that is imagined in all the richness of detail of which the novel is possible. Their individual takes on life, which is what Trilling takes morals to be, somehow different from custom or overt morality, intersect with the forces acting upon the hero or heroine, and the reader observes how these experiments in living will play themselves out. So the novel is a form of instruction that, in the modern world, has become preferable to that which is provided in a church because it is far more subtle. We go from novel to novel ever enriching ourselves about how to act in life. Trilling is carrying on in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, about whom Trilling wrote his first book, someone who also believed that literature had replaced dogma as the way to guide one’s life, though Arnold did not primarily have the novel in mind. Trilling’s was a noble undertaking in that mid century America was in need of a moral compass that would not indulge in quasi-religious platitudes and would instead appeal to the sophisticated secularist who wanted to find the richness of reference and a sense of the complexity of the world that had in previous generations been offered by religion. The liberal West was not without a soul; to the contrary, it cultivated a highly inflected one. And so that is the story Trilling wishes to unfold in any number of novels, Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” just one of them.

But Trilling gets “Mansfield Park” wrong in his widely reprinted essay of that title precisely because he is so hard on the hunt for what he wants to find in it, which is a moral quest, when the whole point of Jane Austen is to be on no moral quest at all but to tell the story of lives as they are actually lived, no judgment passed on the characters, only descriptions of what they are as people, some of those more appealing than others. Trilling starts his essay with his usual grace of style, and that allows him to elide from one point to the next as if one point was earned by the previous remark, though that is not at all the case. Trilling says that Fanny Price is very different from Elizabeth Bennet in that Elizabeth is vivacious and energetic and talkative while Fanny is sickly, uncommunicative and rather dour. This is all true enough but that is used to suggest that Fanny is just a different kind of moral heroine than is Elizabeth, that she too has her principles, those involving support for her cousin Edmund to become a clergyman, which Trilling says is a position that Austen associates with Mr. Collins from “Pride and Prejudice” and so something to be looked down on even though, from Fanny’s point of view, it is the right thing to do.

But, as I say, Fanny is not on a moral quest or even just out to improve her chances in the marriage market in that she turned down a very good match to a rich landholder very much impressed by her, he an amiable mate because she could manage him around and also because he is identified as one of those landholders who want to improve their properties, something of which Fanny might take charge as a suitable outlet for her energies. The reader realizes that the one she wants is the one she has always wanted, which is her cousin Edmund, with whom she has been raised as a sister. Sir Thomas Bertram, who is very vigilant about what happens to his children, cannot even admit to himself that Fanny has this incestuous interest and is willing to put everything else aside, even the well being of the family into which she has been adopted, to accomplish that end. Being a clergyman’s wife is therefore a suitable ambition for someone who has always been a loner, who has made her gaucheness into a tool to get her way, whether to get herself a horse, or by her silence answer those relatives who are critical of her for her low beginnings. She bides her time and finds a way to prevail. So Fanny is no moral exemplar, even if of an unusual kind.

The point of the novel is a keen observation of what it means to take in a poor relation, this offered a generation before Jane Eyre, who was a true orphan, found her way into the Rochester household. Such a situation requires the family to cope, in spite of Sir Thomas’s good intentions, with a mean spirited and selfish child who does not identify with the family but with what she can get out of it, however much that allows the author an opportunity, which a good novelist will indulge, to display the pretensions and idiosyncrasies of a family from the inside, which is great fun for the reader, but does not make the protagonist any more of a heroine.  So Jane Austen is not a moralist but instead offers a portrait of a human soul, one of the most intriguing in world literature, a woman not tragic in the manner of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, but rather true to herself with all that implies about her true character. This novel is therefore not in keeping with what Trilling believes to be the nature of the novel however pleasing it would be to believe that it fits into his grand scheme. Rather, it is onto something even broader, which is to provide a true rendering of human life, never mind the morality.

But Jane Austen, I think, is even more radical than that. She is doing an even grander turn on the Eighteenth Century novel, abandoning its moral message entirely, if morality is understood as a system of what people are obliged to do out of religious or natural principle, and which they can live up to or not, and instead proposes to describe the moral life with utmost clarity and candor, and to make no moral judgments of her own upon it. Her characters are neither symbols or representatives of anything but themselves, but, as they say, are imaginary frogs in real gardens, constrained only by their own sense of things and their sense of the way the world is, working out their fates as best they can, with Jane Austen acting neither as chorus nor moral focus, but only as historian of their travails. This wrenching away from moral certitude while maintaining concern for the reality of moral choice in the quotidian of everyday life, sets the stage for the Nineteenth Century novel, and for what critics have come to call the moral tradition of the novel, even if that hard headed approach is sometimes challenged by escapes into symbolism, imagery, and the other purely literary pleasures of the novel that make it the rival and successor of epic poetry.

Austen is freed to become a student rather than a practitioner of morality not only because her Humean inclinations towards identifying morality with empathy, and so doing without the first of the two, allows her to do so, but because of her appreciation of what the form of the novel can accomplish, how it can rid itself of the superstructure of being a moral exemplary tale, or even an epic one, but simply the record of how some people fare in the world. Characters in novels are like real people in that their motives are always invisible, constructed by an outsider (or the persons themselves) out of the words they use and the emotions they are recognized or recognize themselves to feel. The motive itself is ever allusive, a supposition based on evidence. The more private the motive the less certainty with which anyone, including the person so motivated, can speak of it.

There is no getting around that general point about the nature of moral life. To consider the characters in novels merely fictions, and therefore to have no life outside the page, may seem to undercut a lot of naivete about the complex relation of literature to reality, but it does so at the expense of the imaginative recreation of characters in the minds of readers, who know well enough that they could never have met these particular people in the street, but know equally well that as imaginative creations the characters have a life of their own, which allows us to speculate about their childhoods or what they do after the novel is over, because if we cannot do that, how can they be characters to us, how can we identify with their concerns or the worlds in which they live? It is no more difficult (and probably easier, since we have more information at hand) to speculate about what motivates characters in novels than it is to speculate about what motivates those real people with whom we interact in the actual world, who we presume to have lives when they are out of our sight, whose character we infer from what they do when they are in our sight and what we hear of them doing. Jane Austen makes no greater demands than that in order to gain our appreciation of her characters. She rarely falls into the pose of voicing the point of view of the character that go beyond the evidence already supplied from more indirect observation, and then, it often seems, as a prod to slow readers who need cues or confirmations to reach opinions about her characters that could have been derived without such evidence.

This deliberate limitation of her own artistic resources sets up problems for narration and character portrayal that could have been solved by the novelistic equivalent of the dramatic soliloquy, which is the epistolary form, or else by the contemplative passage, which had already been used by Swift, even if it is given much fuller development in Dickens and his successors. But this limitation, the equivalent of eliminating in prose the rhyme in poetry, allows Jane Austen to do what few other novelists are able to do, but which so many of them strive for: to make her characters either larger or smaller than life, some of both types in the same novel. Characters whose inner lives are revealed are either pathetic, like Mr. Collins, and as they come to be in the stream of consciousness of naturalistic fiction, or heroic, like Elizabeth and Darcy, as they will also be in the dramatic fiction of Dickens and Conrad. But characters about whom we have no more information than is available about real people, act and move and make impressions that are more like those of real people: a bit at a distance, and much left to inference. That is why Jane Austen's characters can seem both spontaneous and determined.

It is also why they can seem both undramatized and ordinary when most art, in its very nature, works against the mundane by making the very act of attending to its characters turn them larger than life, so that the mental world of the reader is filled with Oedipus and Hamlet and the Karamazovs, all of whom make it difficult for the reader not to think that these characters feel more deeply than ordinary mortals do, that real families are pale copies of the Karamazovs, because their own perverse emotions and rages could not possibly be as vivid and are certainly more passing than those of the dramatic characters. Great heroes are, in that way, like movie stars. Because both kinds of characters are larger than life, they are beyond us and so it is quite understandable that they do remarkable things and are caught in remarkable situations and then do remarkable things. Ordinary life is not like that. If there is a moral message in “Mansfield Park” or other of her novels, it is not the question of what are proper morals but, rather, what is the burden of morality on life as a quality of all life, and the answer grows directly from her perception of the nature of novelistic characters, and hence, actual characters: people mean what they say, and are what they seem.

The nature of her undertaking, as it is to be distinguished from an attempt to only produce another turn on the conventions of the novel, is made perfectly clear by the rapid fire sequence of events that follow from Fanny taking leave of Mansfield Park for Portsmouth, confirmed in her inability to choose between Henry Crawford and the desire, barely confessed to herself, to have Edmund or no one. Fanny has been sent to Portsmouth by the benevolent spirit of Sir Thomas so that she might reconsider her irrational refusal to accept Henry Crawford's proposal. Rather than a new adventure, Bertram and Jane Austen have arranged for Fanny to reconsider an old one: how she came to be what she was. What is remarkable about her life in Portsmouth is how little it changes her. She seems to be more willing to consider Henry, since she now expects to hear from him, and is displeased and somewhat alarmed when there is no communication forthcoming, though she has done little enough to encourage him to persist in his interest in her, but the flattery of his relentless pressure might have worked its way at Mansfield Park as well as at Portsmouth-- or maybe not, which is the way it is in real life.