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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Jacob, Esau, and Rebekah in Mansfield Park

Yesterday, Kathy corrected a careless error of mine when she responded to me by writing, in relevant part, "Jacob & Esau were twins -- same mother! Rebekah was the mother of both Esau & Jacob."

I responded in relevant part as follows: "Kathy you are of course correct that Jacob and Esau are twins. I carelessly conflated them in my mind with the 12 sons (and one daughter) of Jacob, courtesy of 4 wives. It is there that the pattern of a younger son achieving greater status than the eldest is repeated...."

However, I just realized that I inadvertently tossed the metaphorical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater, so to speak, because of the following (quoting Wikipedia out of laziness), which is, now I see, what (correctly) prompted me to think of Jacob as the younger son in the first place:

"Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were born to Isaac and Rebekah.... (Genesis 25:20, 25:26). Rebekah...went to inquire of God why she was suffering. She received the prophecy that twins were fighting in her womb and would continue to fight all their lives...The prophecy also said that THE OLDER WOULD SERVE THE YOUNGER...Traditionally, Rebekah did not share the prophecy with her husband. When the time came for Rebekah to give birth, THE FIRST TO COME OUT emerged red and hairy all over, WITH HIS HEEL GRASPED BY THE HAND OF THE SECOND to come out."

So....I now realize that it's not the sons of Jacob who most precisely correspond to Tom and Edmund Bertram, it's Esau and Jacob after all, because Jacob is the "younger brother" in the story, if even only by the length of Esau's heel! And this also fits with my longstanding sense that Lady Bertram, who represents Rebekah, is NOT the passive blob she seems to be---she is only playing that role, in order to quietly exert her own shadowy (and in the end decisive) influence over the course of Bertram family history.

I haven't yet come up with a fully coherent interpretation of what this new information means in terms of the shadow story of MP, except that what IS 100% clear to me is that a key point in any such interpretation MUST be to connect Jacob's conniving to steal Isaac's birthright from Esau by pretending to be Esau to his blind father, to both (i) Sir Thomas's selling the Mansfield living to Dr. Grant in order to defray firstborn Tom's gambling debts, thereby depriving younger-brother Edmund of that living at that time, and (ii) Edmund's eventually succeeding to the Mansfield living upon Dr. Grant's vacation of same, followed by Dr. Grant's death, which was, as the last paragraphs of the novel tell us, a necessary precondition to Edmund's succession as, apparently, Dr. Grant, greedy man as he was to his gourmandish end, retained the Mansfield living as well, in absentia in London.

There is no doubt that the "birthright" in MP refers not only to Tom's primogeniture property rights, but also to Edmund's moral/spiritual rights vis a vis the living at Mansfield.

And this is not just about the sons. Esau is famously and eponymously "red" and the color red is associated in Genesis with his anger when he learns how Jacob has swindled him out of his birthright. And JA surely has that all in mind when she writes the following about the reactions of two women who become angry in ways that relate to sibling rivalry in MP.

First, Julia's reaction when Sir Thomas returns to Mansfield Park from Antigua:

"Julia was the first to move and speak again. Jealousy and bitterness had been suspended: selfishness was lost in the common cause; but at the moment of her appearance, Frederick was listening with looks of devotion to Agatha’s narrative, and pressing her hand to his heart; and as soon as she could notice this, and see that, in spite of the shock of her words, he still kept his station and retained her sister’s hand, her wounded heart swelled again with injury, and LOOKING AS RED as she had been white before, she turned out of the room, saying, “I need not be afraid of appearing before him.”

Second, we have a clearly intentional echo of that scene near the end of the novel, when Edmund describes to Fanny how he has finally confronted Mary with his profound disillusionment about her character, and Mary responds in her characteristic religion--mocking way, as Mary's indirect "claim" to the Bertram "birthright" slips between her fingers like Mrs. Norris's soup (and by the way, the drink that Fanny is thinking about as she trudges tiredly upstairs after the Mansfield ball is "negus", which is a RED diluted alcoholic drink!):

[Edmund to Fanny] "This is what I said, the purport of it; but, as you may imagine, not spoken so collectedly or methodically as I have repeated it to you. She was astonished, exceedingly astonished—more than astonished. I saw [Mary] change countenance. SHE TURNED EXTREMELY RED. I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings: a great, though short struggle; half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it. She would have laughed if she could. It was a sort of laugh, as she answered, ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’

It turns out that Mary never bashes religion out of nowhere. As I have illustrated above, as well as previously, JA always covertly sets the scenes up so that Mary is unwittingly RESPONDING to some underlying Biblical imperative.

And, in conclusion, since all of the above has to do with birth ORDER, it is yet another important meaning hidden in JA's Sphinx-like reference in her letter that MP is about "ORD-ination"! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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