It has become a cliche of Austen scholarship to refer to Mansfield Park in particular as Jane Austen's "problem novel", echoing the term "problem play" which first entered scholarly discourse in the 1890's, and which has in modern times been used a thousand times to refer to the Shakespearean comedies (as categorized in the 1623 First Folio) which do not fit comfortably within the definition of comedy---Measure for Measure (MFM), All's Well That Ends Well (AWTEW), and Troilus and Cressida (T&C).
Curiously, all three of those plays are seen as having been written after all the other Shakespearean comedies and more or less around the same time as Hamlet, which to many is the ultimate "problem play". And I suspect that the roots of the modern colloquial meaning of a "problem" as a bad thing to be fixed in some way arose out of a mathematical analogy, in the sense of something which is puzzling or mysterious in some way which must be "solved" in order to understand its meaning.
Anyway, back to Mansfield Park as JA's problem novel, a small handful of Austen scholars, such as Sarah Emsley and Marcia Folsom, have noted certain parallels between the very unsatisfying ending of Mansfield Park, which is about as unromantic as you can get, and the equally unsatisfying endings of MFM (with the famous out-of-nowhere "proposal" by the Duke to Isabella which has generated a dozen different stage interpretations of how to present Isabella's silent response) and AWTEW (which of course has a "hero" named Bertram who bears in various ways a disturbing resemblance to Edmund Bertram).
What I wish to add to the mix is merely to pull that scholarship together, and now add to it other additional layers I have been talking about in recent blog posts, such as the striking parallelism between MFM for Measure and Mansfield Park in alluding to Matthew 7's first verse about the karma of judgments and measures of justice, and Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" pun as an allusion to Cressida's "come into my chamber" unintentional pun, and other parallels, and to conclude from this what I think is obvious, which is that Jane Austen was very consciously pointing toward Shakespeare's problem plays when she was very consciously writing her own problem novel!
And to me the greatest significance of this insight is what it tells us about the allusive sources for the characters in Mansfield Park, including:
MFM's Machiavellian Duke Vincentio as a source for Sir Thomas Bertram;
MFM's Isabella, AWTEW's Helena and T&C's Cressida ALL as sources for Fanny Price;
T&C's Helen as a source for Mary Crawford;
Angelo and Bertram as sources for Edmund Bertram;
MFM's Lucio as a source for Henry Crawford;
And most of all, what is to many the most disturbing part of MFM and AWTEW, i.e., the so called "bed tricks" wherein the extremely flawed "heroes" are tricked into having sex with a different woman than they intend to, a trick which results in the "hero" being corralled into marriage most unwillingly! What in the world might this mean in the context of Mansfield Park? (or perhaps, JA's other novels as well?) I think, a great deal.
I claim that the reader who is sensitive to this matrix of Shakespearean allusion receives an enormous helping hand from JA in "solving" the "problem" that is Mansfield Park, these allusions are like "assumed postulates" in a logic problem, which assist the solver in his or her task.
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- August Wayne Booth in Once Upon A Time: Jane Austen Really IS Everywhere in 2012!
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