Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 44 No 1 ›   |   Rendering Thought Thing-like: How Objects in Mansfield Park Inform Fanny’s Worldview

Rendering Thought Thing-like: How Objects in Mansfield Park Inform Fanny’s Worldview

In Mansfield Park objects perform in a similar way to that of people.  In the upper-class Mansfield estate, objects are carefully considered and selectively suppressed.  In contrast, a plethora of grotesque objects are on display in the Price household.  It is worth addressing the treatment of the specific objects in each residence to distinguish the difference between the two opposing worldviews and value systems of each family.  The passive nature of objects at Mansfield informs Fanny Price’s worldview and contributes to her obedient behavior.  When she returns to her family’s home in Portsmouth, the vitality of the object world startles and offends her.  Through Fanny’s consciousness, objects associated with the upper class are valorized whereas those associated with the working class are vulgarized.  The contrasting behavior of objects at the Mansfield estate and the Price household contribute towards Fanny’s internalization of, and her assimilation to, the ways and means of the upper class.  By applying Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” to Mansfield Park, we can see precisely how Fanny transitions from a fetishized working-class object to an indispensable thing that maintains and regulates the ideology of the upper class.

According to Brown’s Thing Theory, there is a difference between an “object” and a “thing.”  Objects have an obvious function.  They are possessed, utilized, and discarded by their user, and they passively accept this role.  When an object becomes active—for example, by malfunctioning or by failing to fulfil its role—it becomes a thing.  Brown posits that when an object asserts itself as a thing, its relationship with the subject, i.e., the user of the object, is changed.  By pushing back against the user and refusing to perform its function, the object gains agency and surprises its user.  Brown argues that the overabundant objects in our materialist and consumerist society influence us as much as we influence them:  this “tale of possession . . . is a tale not just of thinking with things but also of trying to render thought thing-like” (A Sense of Things 5).  In other words, objects affect and influence our perception of the world.  In Mansfield Park Fanny’s thought is rendered thing-like because the objects in her upper-class environs influence her perception of behavior.  She supports the tranquility of objects as opposed to their unruliness. 

Like Brown, Baudrillard claims that “every object . . . has two functions—to be put to use and to be possessed” (92).  Fanny performs both functions:  she is put to use, particularly by Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris, and she is treated as one of the family’s token possessions.  By depicting Fanny as an object, Austen underscores women as the ornaments of nineteenth-century Britain.  Fanny, the daughter of a retired Lieutenant of the Marines, does not perform in the same way as Austen’s gentry heroines.  Although all Austen’s women are, in some way, objects as they represent real women living within a patriarchal and paternalistic society, unlike her two rich female cousins, Fanny possesses neither financial nor aesthetic value because she does not belong to the upper class.  Of course, women, like Maria and Julia, are often objectified for their financial or aesthetic qualities, but they do not perform as objects in the same way that a less fortunate woman does.  Fanny’s objecthood is a consequence of identity factors and class bias that separate her from the rest of her elitist household.  Austen makes it clear that women were the victims of a system that privileged a patriarchal upper class, but it is important to recognize that her female characters are not entirely blameless.  Fanny’s passivity and Lady Bertram’s indolence uphold and maintain the workings of this system.  Neither character challenges the system that makes them, respectively, financially poor or physically weak; indeed, their indulgence of their own objecthood supports this oppressive system.  As a result of her objecthood, Fanny lacks personhood.  If personhood is defined not just by corporeality but also by having an identity, Fanny performs as an object rather than as a person:  while at Mansfield Park, she does not possess an identity outside of her function as an object for the Bertrams. 

As well as performing as an object, Fanny interacts with other objects at Mansfield.  Brown argues that “we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies” (A Sense of Things 4).  If, as Brown posits, we use objects to “make meaning” or to “make or re-make ourselves,” Fanny’s interaction with objects is an integral part of her own identity construction.  The Bertram family uses the old school room as a space to house old and unwanted objects that no longer serve any useful or aesthetic purpose.  Fanny occupies this “useless” room, the East room, when she desires her own space “for walking about in and thinking” or collecting and taking care of “what nobody else wanted” (150–51).  Among these calming objects—plants, books, a writing-desk—Fanny finds her “friends.”  The room includes other “ornaments” for Fanny to interact with, such as “a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill done for the drawing-room” (152).  The footstool is banished from the main rooms of the house and, therefore, the collective consciousness of the family.  Julia’s footstool is symbolic of the attitudes and behaviors that characterize the upper-class treatment of objects.  Like the footstool, Fanny is pushed away from the most valuable domains of the house.  She is made to sleep in the “little white attic” (150), she is encouraged to spend time in the East room among other unwanted objects, and she is not authorized to go to the ballrooms that her female cousins frequent.  Women, like the footstool, are the “ornaments” of society; those without monetary or aesthetic value must be hidden away.  Fanny, like the footstool, serves no aesthetic purpose; her useful purpose is as a convenience to Lady Bertram or Mrs. Norris.  She internalizes the treatment of the footstool, and she is indoctrinated to believe that the removal of unwanted objects, including people, is the correct form of governance.  The East room confines Fanny to a small number of objects, and she adopts this parochial worldview of the upper class.  As she “so naturally and so artlessly worked herself into” the East room, she becomes part of the furniture. 

Brock crop

“Am I to understand,” said Sir Thomas, “that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?”

Fanny performs as a passive object until the performance of Lovers’ Vows.  The play and performance are contrary to the behaviors she has learned to respect:  it destabilizes the rigidity of domestic propriety.  When Tom tells Fanny that he “‘want[s] her services,’” she performs as a dutiful and passive object.  She “was up in a moment, expecting some errand.”  When he tells her that she “‘must’” act in their performance of Lovers’ Vows, however, she refuses the order.  Indeed, when Tom tells her, “‘yes, yes, you can act,’” Fanny opposes him by stating that, “‘no, indeed, Mr. Bertram, you must excuse me.’”  Fanny here transitions from a passive object to an active thing that malfunctions and surprises its user.  Her act of defiance, her failure to perform as an object, shocks Mrs. Norris, who is “angry” and “ashamed” of Fanny’s non-compliance (145–46).  The turning point in the novel occurs when Fanny utilizes her thingness—that is, her agency—to refuse Henry’s marriage proposal.  Fanny’s defiance should be understood as an internalization of the mores of upper-class society; a marriage with Henry would contrast against her learned notions of propriety.  No longer a passive and obedient object, Fanny refuses the offer.  Since she has transitioned into an active object, or a thing with agency, she no longer fulfils her purpose to the family.  Bewildered by Fanny’s non-compliance and failure to function correctly, Sir Thomas sends his niece to her former home with the hope that spending time in a poorer household will galvanize her into changing her mind and accepting a socially and economically advantageous marriage.  According to the worldview of the user, Sir Thomas, things like Fanny have limited agency or autonomy.  As a consequence of thinking beyond this limited realm, Fanny is punished. 

When Fanny arrives at the Price household, she is “almost stunned” (382) by the disorderly presence of objects and people.  The vitality of the object world in Portsmouth is at odds with the tranquility and passivity of objects at Mansfield.  Just as the Bertrams move unvalued objects into the East room where only Fanny will see them, Austen suppresses valueless objects from the Mansfield narrative to reflect the upper-class culture in which unwanted objects are removed.  Fanny understands what is beautiful and what is ugly through the limited worldview that has been imposed upon her and that she has internalized.  She considers the Price home and family coarse because the objects within are so unlike those at Mansfield.  Grotesque objects made visible in the Price house include servants and workers, food and alcohol, and household items.  The “half-cleaned” plates nod to the uncouth culture of the household and contrast with the refined nature of objects at Mansfield (413).  The objects in the Price home are considered “ugly” because they are made visible by a class that cannot afford to suppress them.  At Mansfield objects are never described as clean or dirty because cleanliness is not a consideration; their plates will always be clean because they will always have servants to clean them.  While an “ill done” footstool at Mansfield must be hidden from sight, dirty crockery is always visible in the Price household. 

Servants too are constantly audible and visible in Portsmouth, unlike the quiet and submissive workers at Mansfield.  Rebecca, the “upper servant,” is “never where she ought to be” (383, 387), demonstrating a resistance to objecthood.  Her thingness, which is to say her disobedience, startles Fanny’s submissive and passive nature.  Even amid a cacophony of shouting, Rebecca is the “loudest” (382).  Rebecca performs in the household as someone who is heard and seen, unlike the servants at Mansfield.  Other workers include Sally, the “attendant girl” (383), or the driver who “came to be paid” —one of the “bustles” in the house—or the absence of a “butcher at hand” (379).  The Prices’ awareness of butchers, servants, drivers, and their wages indicates how much closer to the realities of work and poverty they are than the Mansfield family, whose workers and wages are largely absent from the collective consciousness and discourse. 

Fanny is startled by her awareness of working-class bodies in the house, but the unorthodox performances of inanimate objects are perhaps more surprising.  Mrs. Price wishes to “‘get the bell mended’” (379) so that she can call for the tea things.  The bell has transitioned from object to thing that has behaved in an unexpected way; by malfunctioning, it is now brought into consciousness and discourse.  This kind of identification of objects and their unorthodox behaviors highlights a material restriction and an anxiety for comfort that are not registered by the Bertrams.  Objects perform in an unruly manner at the Price household whereas they remain passive at Mansfield.  Moreover, the bell symbolizes a link between two classes:  with the bell broken, the separation between the Prices and servants no longer exists.  The malfunction destabilizes the class stratification in the home.  In contrast, the bell at Mansfield is a tool that maintains the separation of upper and lower classes.  Lady Bertram increases her distance by inserting Fanny between herself and the servants.  Her demand “‘Fanny, ring the bell’” (140–41) enhances the class structure within the home. 

Fanny cannot help but compare the liveliness of objects in the Price household with the tranquility of objects at Mansfield.  She is perplexed by the misplacement and disorder of common household objects, and she “thought it would not have been so at Mansfield.”  Evidently, Fanny has learned to prefer the passivity of objects to the unruliness of things.  Austen then lucidly shifts into free indirect discourse:  “No, in her uncle’s house there would have been a consideration of times and seasons, a regulation of subject, a propriety, an attention towards everybody which there was not here” (382–83).  It is important to recognize that it is Fanny, not the narrator, who attributes these positive attributes to Mansfield.  Fanny seems to forget her treatment as an object and her removal to the attic room.  She deludes herself into missing the “dear, dear friends” (382) at Mansfield, a description inconsistent with their cruel behavior towards her.  To understand this shift in ideology, Anne Mellor and Alex Milsom posit that Fanny’s assimilation into the Bertram family can be read as a form of Stockholm syndrome, sensitively arguing that Sir Thomas’s treatment of Fanny reflects a colonial ideology to which Fanny becomes accustomed.  Mellor and Milsom suggest that Fanny is “loyal to her master” (224), desiring the house and respecting the family that has abused her. 

Thing Theory can help us understand the process of Fanny’s Stockholm syndrome.  The upper-class environs of the Mansfield estate have rendered Fanny’s thought thing-like.  In other words, she thinks through the lens of upper-class objects, internalizing their passivity.  When Fanny transitions from passive object to thing with agency, she utilizes that thingness to support the notions of propriety of the upper class.  She does not take part in the performance of Lovers’ Vows because it is an inappropriate play to perform at Mansfield, and she refuses Henry’s proposal because she does not respect his improper behavior.  Fanny’s dedication to propriety demonstrates her willingness to conform to upper-class decorum.  Fanny’s thought has therefore been rendered thing-like:  she either behaves like a passive object to be employed by the upper class or she uses her thingness exclusively to maintain the ideals of the upper class.  In contrast, she is alienated from the Price household, “the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety.  Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be” (388–89).  The objects assault Fanny’s senses but only because her thing-like perspective is restricted to an upper-class worldview.  In her despair, Fanny “could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways” (391).  Austen’s free indirect discourse demonstrates Fanny’s delusion about Mansfield. 

Fanny continues to draw contrasting parallels between the behavior in the two houses.  Her father is visibly violent towards objects.  When Mr. Price arrives home, “he kicked away his son’s portmanteau, and his daughter’s band-box” (279).  In contrast, according to Fanny, “no tread of violence was ever heard” at Mansfield (392).  Violence may not be visible to Fanny in the Bertram household, but that does not mean it is absent.  Instead, violence, like objects with neither financial nor aesthetic purposes, is hidden, pushed into the background.  When Fanny unintentionally alludes to violence by asking about the slave trade, she is met with “‘such a dead silence!’” (198).  Although most objects in the Price house seem outlandish to Fanny, there is one object that she considers important:  the “silver knife” (386).  As “silver,” its material quality is unusual and significant—and therefore coveted.  According to Brown, objects have the capacity to “become values, fetishes, idols, and totems” (“Thing Theory” 5).  The silver knife becomes a totem because of its financial and aesthetic value.  In contrast, knives are suppressed from the consciousness of the Bertram household because they are commonplace objects.  To resolve the conflict between her sisters over the knife, Fanny purchases another one for Betsey with part of the £10 Sir Thomas has given her.  Fanny thus exerts control over the object, maintains the object’s passivity, and prevents the object from acquiring agency and becoming a thing that frustrates and divides her family.  Furthermore, rather than learning to share, her sisters can adopt an individualist mindset through possessing their own objects.  Fanny’s belief “that a small sum of money might, perhaps, restore peace for ever on the sore subject of the silver knife” (396) internalizes the idea that conflict can be resolved through money. 

When the Bertrams eventually realize that Fanny has correctly judged the Crawfords, she is rewarded with a marriage proposal from Edmund, which she gratefully accepts.  Fanny’s value—her price—increases over the course of the novel as she transforms from a fetishized lower-class object to a valued member of the Bertram family—or, rather, a thing that maintains the workings of society.  Edward Said and Joseph Donohue, among others, have argued that it is thanks to Fanny that Sir Thomas realizes that he has mismanaged the house and his children’s education.  Sir Thomas, however, does not change his behavior.  In fact, he relies on the upper-class model of discarding unwanted objects and people, banishing Mrs. Norris and Maria from Mansfield Park.  Donohue argues that “the tranquility of Mansfield Park becomes . . . a happy metaphor for a society at peace with itself” (178).  Mansfield may be at peace, but that peace comes at a cost.  The “happy metaphor” is, on the contrary, a sinister portrayal of assimilation.  As Fanny’s thought is rendered thing-like, she adopts Sir Thomas’s worldview that the removal of people and objects can restore prosperity and propriety for the upper class.  Lynn Festa correctly remarks that the “happy” ending “imposes—enforces—peace and tranquility” (162). 

Fanny transitions from a passive object used by the upper class to a thing with agency that reproduces the social behaviors of that class.  If Fanny uses her thingness to push back against Sir Thomas, she is punished.  As a result, she can only use her thingness, which is to say her agency, to assimilate to the upper-class ways.  Austen exhibits the dominance of one class over another as Fanny adopts an object-based worldview that privileges the upper class.  Fanny’s transition from object to thing therefore demonstrates the sinister assimilation process of Mansfield Park.  Austen’s heroines usually learn to think like the families they marry into.  Fanny is no exception.  The object-based worldview that she adopts reflects the ideology of a wealthy and materialistic family.  Thing Theory, moreover, allows us to extend this understanding of the family’s ideology:  we learn not just what the family thinks but, how it thinks.  Fanny’s willing performance of objecthood ironically reinforces the societal stratification that keeps her Portsmouth family poor.  In the end, Fanny upholds a society wherein one’s own wealth and status is prioritized over the wellbeing and financial security of others.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1934.
  • Baudrillard, Jean.  The System of Objects.  London: Verso, 1996.
  • Brown, Bill.  A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature.  Chicago: UCP, 2003.
  • _____.  “Thing Theory.”  Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 1–22
  • Donohue, Joseph W.  “Ordination and the Divided House at Mansfield Park.”  ELH 32 (1965): 169–78.
  • Festa, Lynn.  “The Noise in Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions 36 (2014): 151–64.
  • Mellor, Anne K., and Alex L. Milsom.  “Austen’s Fanny Price, Grateful Negroes, and the Stockholm Syndrome.”  Persuasions 34 (2012): 222–35.
  • Said, Edward W.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Vintage, 1994.
‹ Back to Publication