PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.1 (Winter 2011)

“The Imagination Supplied What the Eye Could Not Reach”: The Unconscious Self-Deception of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price

Kelly Hagen


Kelly Hagen (email: recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, where she majored in English and Psychology and wrote her senior honors thesis on elements of French Revolutionary thought in Persuasion.  She is currently a first-year student at the University of Michigan Law School.


Sigmund Freud

sigmund Freud, who drew upon literature to develop much of his psychological theory, once wrote, “Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead.  We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces” (16-17).  Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park presents an embodiment of the first half of this reflection, as its examination of the thoughts and actions of Fanny Price reveals a young girl who consistently skews the world around her in order to envision for herself a more accepting and more loving community.  While Fanny fails to recognize her misperceptions of reality, Austen’s subtle revelations of the conflicts between Fanny’s perceptions and the objective world around her encourage the reader to explore the heroine’s potential motivations for this unconscious self-deception.  Through these considerations, the reader must also consider what the consequences would be if Fanny’s perceived reality were indeed “dashed to pieces” in the absence of self-deception.  Such an examination reveals the tragic nature of Fanny Price’s life, a life so dominated by scorn and neglect that unconscious self-deception becomes the only means through which Fanny can resist despair and, to some extent, attain happiness.


Fanny Price’s unconscious self-deception can be seen most clearly in her repression of her love for her cousin Edmund.  When Fanny sees Edmund teaching Mary how to ride a horse, jealousy prompts Fanny to “wonder[ ] that Edmund should forget her, and [she] felt a pang” (79).  Fanny even believes that Edmund “had hold of” Mary’s hand, with Austen’s explanation that “the imagination supplied what the eye could not reach” pointing to the influence of Fanny’s unconscious mind in promoting her jealous feelings (79).  Once this jealousy begins to emerge, however, Fanny quickly reasons these feelings away and ends her musings by projecting her jealousy onto the horse, lamenting, “[I]f she were forgotten the poor mare should be remembered” (79).


Fanny’s unconscious tendency to distort her interpretation skews her conception of her own motivations as well.  Fanny presents herself as a religious and moral individual, wearing a cross to the ball and disapproving of her companions’ wish to perform a somewhat scandalous play.  However, Fanny rarely displays any sort of moral thought processes, and her apparently virtuous actions are motivated by fear rather than moral reasoning.  When debating whether or not to act, Fanny makes her decision by weighing her fear of opposing the acting party against her fear of disappointing Edmund when she asks, “[W]ould Edmund’s judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest?” (179).  Moreover, Fanny does concede once Edmund asks her, reinforcing the idea that her behavior is dictated by her fear of losing Edmund’s regard as opposed to her sense of morality.


Fanny’s self-deception has become so developed that she unconsciously distorts her memories to conform to her idealized interpretation.  When Fanny learns that she will soon visit her family in Portsmouth, she looks forward to being “in the centre of such a circle, loved by so many, and more loved by all than she had ever been before, to feel affection without fear or restraint” (426).  However, when she arrives at Portsmouth, Fanny’s idealized memory of her family as loving and accepting clashes with reality when they fail to express warmth or inclusiveness.  Instead of acknowledging the error in her memory of Portsmouth, Fanny unconsciously creates an idealized perception of Mansfield Park, wishing for her “dear, dear friends!” and imagining that there she would be treated respectfully, as “there would have been . . . an attention towards every body which there was not [in Portsmouth],” despite the fact that she has always been treated poorly by the majority of the Mansfield Park residents (442).  This tendency of her unconscious to distort her memory indicates Fanny’s inability to face her lack of community and her need to replace the truth of her experiences with idealized creations.


But why does Fanny participate to such a great extent in this unconscious self-deception of her emotions, motivations, and memories?  When one considers the reality of Fanny’s situation in life, it appears that Fanny’s distortion of reality is the only means through which she can cope with her truly horrific reality.  If Fanny were to acknowledge her love for Edmund, she would be placing herself in competition with Mary Crawford. As Fanny is sure of Edmund’s romantic attachment to Mary, Fanny has no hope that Edmund could love her instead.  Thus, from Fanny’s perspective, acknowledging her love for Edmund would result not in any loving union, but in the pain of unrequited love.  Even more important, Fanny believes that loving Edmund would be ungrateful to the Bertram family.  As Fanny has become so conditioned against appearing ungrateful, the idea of entertaining an ungrateful emotion strikes her as despicable.


Finally, Fanny’s love for Edmund appears to have incestuous undertones.  Although marriage between cousins was not necessarily inappropriate for the time period, Edmund and Fanny are referred to throughout the novel as having a sibling-like relationship, and Edmund often describes his love for Fanny as a brotherly love.  Incestuous undertones can also be seen in the similarity between Fanny’s love for her brother William and her love for Edmund, as Fanny unites William’s cross with Edmund’s chain and cherishes that in doing so she unites “those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart, those dearest tokens so formed for each other by every thing real and imaginary” (314).  Fanny’s acknowledgment of her love for Edmund, as it would entail a recognition not only of her potential inadequacies in comparison to Mary Crawford but also of ungrateful and incestuous feelings, appears to be too painful for her to address consciously, and her unconscious suppression of her love serves as a way of protecting her mind from the dangerous reality of her own sexual desire.


Similarly, Fanny strives to present herself as motivated by conservative morals that favor restraint and subservience over passion and independence because to acknowledge that her true motivation lies in fear, rather than a strict morality, would mean having to face the many realities of her situation that she has reason to fear.  Acknowledging her fear of disappointing Edmund would mean acknowledging her love for him as well, something which, for the reasons stated above, would be traumatic.  Moreover, Fanny’s fear of appearing ungrateful seems connected to her need for community, as the Bertrams and Aunt Norris have taught her that she must express her gratitude in order to hold her place in their home.  For Fanny to acknowledge her fear of appearing ungrateful would be to acknowledge her fear of being isolated, a fear founded in the reality of her life, as she finds herself shifted back and forth from home to home, never fully accepted by either family.  This fear of isolation appears to connect to her distorted memories as well, as she creates images of a united family in which she is appreciated and loved in order to cover up the reality that neither family expresses much affection for her.  In this way, Fanny deceives herself as to her own motivations and memories in order to create for herself a feeling of love and community absent from every experience of family she has ever had.


Mansfield Park does not conclude with a sense of greater self-understanding by the heroine, but rather with Austen’s continued examination of self-deception through the disparity between Fanny’s perception of her future and a more objective prediction of Fanny’s fate.  Although Fanny and Edmund marry, Fanny never directly acknowledges her love for him, and the problems of ingratitude and incest remain lurking beneath the surface.  At the conclusion of the novel, Austen explains, “With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be” (547), painting the surface image of a fairytale ending.  However, a closer look at the realities of the marriage forces the reader to acknowledge that there has been no indication of romantic love in Edmund, that the couple will live on a relatively limited income, and that Edmund and Fanny actually have very few friends, as by the end of the novel most of the characters have disgraced themselves and shown little allegiance to either character.  The positive conclusion of the novel appears to be not reality but rather Fanny’s perception of the marriage and their future, a perception which, as demonstrated throughout the novel, is likely the result of her unconscious self-deception.


Moreover, in the closing words of the novel, Fanny rejoices that she can now view the parsonage “as thoroughly perfect . . . as every thing else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been” (548).  Fanny’s inaccurate memory of Mansfield Park further underscores her continued practice of self-deception at the novel’s conclusion.  As all of the characters who reside in Mansfield Park deceive themselves in some way or another, there is no hope that after the action of the novel has ended, another character will educate Fanny as to her self-deception.  Hence, Fanny marries Edmund and promises to continue her life still resorting to the collusion of the unconscious without which, as Freud suggests, all her pleasure would be “dashed to pieces.”


By juxtaposing Fanny’s perceptions with the objective world around her, Austen reveals Fanny’s disturbing tendency toward unconscious self-deception.  However, a further look at the motivations for the disparity between Fanny’s perceptions and her reality reveals an even more disturbing truth:  Fanny’s self-deception appears to be the only means through which she can create for herself loving relationships and a sense of community.  From this perspective, one must doubt whether Fanny’s recognition of her self-deception would be desirable.  Fanny may in fact be better off deceiving herself and ignoring the realities of the world around her.  The acknowledgment of the necessity for her self-deception highlights the depressing reality of Fanny’s life.  Through her exploration of the human ability for self-deception, Austen reveals the tragedy of Fanny Price’s happiness and, rather than criticizing Fanny’s self-deceiving tendencies, sympathizes with her lack of community and of love.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

Freud, Sigmund.  Reflections on War and Death.  Trans. A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner.  New York: Moffat, 1918.


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