The View of the Whole Person: The Difference between Appearance and Possession of Virtue in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

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Critics of Mansfield Park criticize Austen for not having a clear moral principle or religious belief for the reader to trace throughout the novel. This view, however, betrays a gap between the critics’ understanding and Austen’s distinction between the appearance and possession of virtue—or even her recognition that virtue is the end goal. These critics that reject the depth of Austen also fail to see that Mansfield Park aims to prove the difference between the appearance of virtue, “good etiquette,” and the possession of virtue, “right conduct.” In order to identify the distinction between appearance and possession of virtue, the reader must look at how Austen is studying the whole person and using these observations to create her characters. In Mansfield Park, there are three aspects that Austen presents as crucial to the formation of virtue in a character—a character’s education, his ability to reflect and remember, and his willfulness versus dutifulness. In this paper I analyze how Austen distinguishes between the appearance and possession of virtue in the characters in Mansfield Park using these three aspects. Austen’s position becomes clear when the reader compares the major characters in these categories and distinguishes the endings that befall them.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, virtue, education, reflection, will vs duty